Heath tried to keep the glare of his pocket L.E.D flashlight on the loose dirt trail in front of him. Hard to keep it still when the canopy of maples above completely cut off the full moon's shine. His single circle of light provided the only break in the complete darkness all around.
A darkness full of creaks and groans and rustles. As though the forest were a single huge entity, and it had Heath surrounded. Made the humid air closer, despite the relative cool of the July evening.
And besides, Heath was not in a proper forest. Not really. He was hiking a park trail in the west hills of Portland, Oregon. Technically he was in a city. Or so a sign among the wild green of the undergrowth reminded him. Not that Heath could think of Portland as a city.
Heath had been raised in Manhattan. Compared to the glass and steel canyon of his youth, all of Portland was more like a forest where buildings happened to grow in rows and groves. So many trees, even downtown, and all the grass, and bushes . . .
And the parks. The parks were like the deep woods, and they smelled like his grandparents' farm up in Maine: wet, musty and ominous.
Heath shrugged his backpack higher onto his shoulder, freeing up one hand to tug the collar of his tee shirt close against his exposed-feeling neck, and check the pocket knife in his jeans. Memories of the farm were for when he felt safe inside his apartment, where the local spirits had accepted him and would keep an eye on him. Where Papa Legba would misdirect any harm that tried to come knocking.
Not for wandering through a strange park to meet a strange man.
Heath considered pausing for a sip of cane rum from the flask in his backpack, but no. The rum was for the spirits. He could have some after he had offered them their share.
Assuming the meeting went well.
Heath stopped walking, wiggled his toes in his heavy hiking boots. He took a deep breath, and spat—once before him, once behind him, and once at his feet. Another deep breath, and the shiver trying to crawl down his neck faded away. His stomach stopped trembling. The creaks and pops and crinkly shakes, those were just regular noises. Trees and bushes doing their things. Little squirrels and mice going about their nightly business. Maybe Brother Fox out for his night's meal.
Nice stuff. Normal stuff. Just the world doing what the world always does, no matter how much human beings do to piece the veils.
A quick circle pan showed only more trail, more trees, and more bushes that might not have been ferns, but looked like ferns to Heath.
To be honest though, if Heath didn't need a plant to conjure with, he didn't bother learning its name, much less its particulars. Only so many hours in a day, he always told himself.
He started back down the trail again, looking for that rarest of things in this day and age: a true crossroads.
Some people think they can find a crossroads at every street corner these days, or at least everywhere two freeways meet. But those people don't know how these things actually work, and to be honest, most of them couldn't care less.
Not like Heath, who had no choice but to learn the truth or he would never have reached the ripe old age of twenty-five.
A crossroads has to be a lonely place. It has to be a real choice point. When you stand at a crossroads and pick which way to go, that decision has to mean something. It can't be a decision you can change your mind about a few hundred feet later, or even a quarter mile.
You change your mind, you have to backtrack all the way to the crossroads. Give up all the progress you've made to select a new path for yourself.
That's what makes a crossroads. Gotta be you and your choice, and once you've made it, you've made it.
That was why Heath left the safety of his apartment with nothing more than a gris-gris bag in his pocket and the contents of his backpack for protection. That was why he had to come out in the middle of the night instead of the easy comfort of bright daylight with the periodic company of other hikers and joggers.
Change required risk. And Heath needed a big change.
The crossroads didn't look like much, even in the stark moonlight of the clearing. Just a skinny finger of a path scratching its way across the wider dirt of the main trail. Thick wet grass grew close all around, like it was thinking of spreading over the upstart and getting rid of it once and for all. A neighborhood of frogs and crickets hung back on their stoops and debated whether or not the grass' plan would work.
The moon strode high, but His Nibs had not yet arrived.
Heath dug into his black canvas backpack and pulled out three short, thick beeswax candles. The first two—one green, one white—both of those had been lit a few times. They had dings on the sides where symbols had been engraved, then carved out and re-melted into place. In fact, the green one still smelled faintly of orange and ginger from that money charm last month.
Heath twisted his lips around at that. Shouldn't hurt this spell, but it was sloppy. Unprofessional. Hoped His Nibs didn't notice, once Heath got the incense going.
The black candle came last, pristine as it was yesterday when he pulled it out of its mold.
Heath arranged the three candles into a triangle, twisting them into the loose dirt of the trail for more support. Barely a hint of a breeze, though. Not enough to be a problem.
He pulled out his mini-saucepan censer—the one he liked to call the bedpan when he was working alone, although it would barely be big enough for a Chihuahua's butt. He shook it a few times to settle the salt under the coals, then dug out his dollar store box of matches and got the coal going. Next he dug out his incense blend, in its three-inch-by-three-inch wooden box, covered with the symbols of every god, demon, saint and spirit Heath had ever worked with.
Seeing those symbols triggered a reflex in him, and he had to check himself twice from offering a quick prayer to Papa Legba to guard and guide him in tonight's work. But this was no time to call on Papa, much less any of the little spirits who kept an eye on Heath, more days than not.
Tonight had to be risky. No safety net.
Heath ran his fingers through his brown curls and considered pulling out the purple candle that had taken him a month to carve. He had molded the wax into a block, then had to hand-carve it into the best human skull he could make of it. Which was pretty good, all told. It had now been sitting in its black velvet bag for sixteen days.
He left the skull candle where it was. No use in exposing it to moonlight too soon. Never knew who, or what, could be watching.
He did pull out the flask of rum though. Heath was proud of the flask. A gift four years ago from an ecstatic client, the flask held ten ounces and was worked out of pure silver. It shone and gleamed in the moonlight, bringing a smile to Heath's face.
He knew his business. Tonight would be just fine. And then, everything would be good again.
"That for me?" said a voice as smooth as a subway train you just missed.
Heath had never heard a footstep. Not a cracked twig or any scuffed dirt. But His Nibs was standing there, not three feet in front of him. Barely two feet past the black candle at the apex of the triangle.
"I expected you to be wearing a black suit," said Heath, looking up from where he crouched in the dirt.
His Nibs looked like any of a hundred hipsters Heath would never have noticed downtown. Scruffy twenty-something in denim and flannel, pale despite spending all day outside because he knew where the shadows fell.
"Didn't think dress code would matter much, seeing as how we're meeting in the middle of nowhere. And you never answered my question."
"This rum is not for you," said Heath, irritated that he had missed his client's approach. First chance to be impressive down the drain. "And the suit wasn't about identification. You need to look like it's your funeral."
"If I get buried tomorrow," said His Nibs with condescending eyebrows high, "they can bury me just the way I am."
"If you can't follow instructions, they still might. What you have on your tail is no joke." Exaggeration, of course. His Nibs was under a curse, of course, but probably nothing fatal. Still, Heath left that idea hanging as he slipped the flask back into his backpack. Never hurt to let a client sweat. "Do you have my money?"
"One thousand three hundred seventy-seven, cash," said His Nibs, pulling a rubber-band-bound wad of bills out of his shirt. He started to put it back, but Heath extended his hand, expectantly. His Nibs raised only one eyebrow this time, as though this made his derision subtler. "Uh, when you're done, Voodoo Man."
"Hoodoo," said Heath, "not Vodou, and no money, no spell. I walk."
His Nibs stared down, shaking the wad in his hand, considering. Heath thought about standing, putting them on literal equal footing, but chose to wait.
"Half up front," said His Nibs.
"This is not a negotiation." Heath picked up the white candle and put it in his bag.
"'Course it is," said His Nibs. "Everybody knows you took the ass end of that scuffle with Vizinha. Figure you're hurting for clients."
Heath stopped, green candle halfway to the bag, relaxed his eyes, and looked up at His Nibs. In fact, he looked through His Nibs, like he could see right inside him, all the way to his very soul. In a calm, steady voice—much steadier than his stomach felt at the prospect of losing his first serious client in months—he said, "Know what else would help my reputation? If a client who tried to stiff me got hit by a car. Or maybe caught herpes. Or maybe—"
"You don't even know my name." A little quaver through the client's voice told Heath that His Nibs knew that might not be enough.
"I give every client a nickname. I never use the same one twice." Heath smiled. "Believe me. If I send something to your window at night, it'll find your address just fine."
The money fell into Heath's hand like magic.
His Nibs got more cooperative after that. He stood and listened without a word for five whole minutes while Heath reset his candles, checked his coal, and explained what was about to happen. Or at least, explained as much as he felt his client needed to know.
Meanwhile the full moon kept on rising over their little clearing in that Portland park, would be near its zenith soon. Frogs kept up their arguing in the background, but the crickets had moved on. Heath couldn't remember if that were normal for this park, or a sign that the Thing following His Nibs was approaching.
Heath was pretty sure he still had time.
But all the same, he set a brisk clip as he laid out the real preparations for the working. His Nibs had to lie in the center of the crossroads, eyes closed and arms crossed over his chest. Idiot looked ridiculous in flannel and denim. Should have worn the suit, but too late to worry about that now.
Heath sketched a coffin around His Nibs using his special homemade Dead Man Powder, a combination of graveyard dust, brick dust, widow's tears, fennel, and a few things Heath kept secret. Then he hammered eight coffin nails halfway into the dirt, as though anchoring the lid of the coffin closed.
Next, Heath pulled out a Unitarian prayer book and read a funeral service over His Nibs, substituting "this man" everywhere the service asked for a name. Finally, he picked up a handful of dirt from the crossroads itself and scattered it across the supine man and his coffin outline, saying, "Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust."
His Nibs twitched when the dirt hit him. Heath pretended not to notice.
Heath lit the white, green, and black candles of his triangle, and tossed his incense on his coal. Pungent dragon's blood filled his nostrils, along with mugwort, drowning out the other, subtler powders, which was as it should be. Heath carefully set his purple skull candle in the center of the four-foot-wide triangle.
Then he stepped out of the triangle and past His Nibs to stand in a perfect line connecting them down the trail, with His Nibs in the center, where that tiny excuse for a path turned the trail into a true and proper crossroads.
Heath took a few deep breaths and tried to slow his own heartbeat. Only moderate success. For a cool night, he felt uncomfortably warm, and tugging at his tee shirt didn't seem to offer much relief.
But then, Heath knew that everything up to this point had been the easy part. Now came the risk.
Heath reached into the pocket of his jeans and gave his gris-gris bag a squeeze to reassure himself that it was still there.
"Hey you," he called in a loud voice. "I see you there sneaking through the shadows. Trying to pretend you're one of them, when you're not."
Not exactly true. Heath couldn't see the fetch, but he knew it was there. And when he read the cards earlier, looking for details about His Nibs and the curse, he found out something else too.
"I can even see the mark of Samigina on you, plain as day, and I know what it means." It meant that someone had called up one of Solomon's old demons and had it send a spirit from its "legions" to harass and bedevil His Nibs. In little ways at first, as the curse settled in, but in larger and larger ways until His Nibs was likely to end up in the hospital. But probably not dead. Death was a task for more than a fetch.
It also meant that Heath could share that fate if he failed. Or worse if he drew Samigina's uncontrolled attention.
"So," he continued, in the bravest voice he could muster, "as you can see I set you out a triangle and a good, smoky incense. Why don't you and I have a chat? Because the boy you came here to hurt, well, he's already dead."
Heath gestured to His Nibs, lying in state in the dirt within the ritual coffin, then pulled out a single printed page and began to read as though from an obituary. "I printed this off the Oregonian's website this evening. Seems your boy here got a chicken bone caught in his throat and choked to death. Looks like you did your job a little too well."
Heath waited for a response. For the spirit to leave, or move into the rising smoky incense. Something. But it lingered, somewhere just past the edge of his vision. Not quite visible, but shiveringly near.
"I know, I know," Heath said with pretended exasperation. "You didn't do it. But you can't quite feel your target, can you? Like maybe I'm telling you the truth, and you can get a little sense of his empty body, and you can maybe even get a tiny sense of what used to be his soul, but you can't get to either, and you can't be sure whether they're together someplace out of reach or apart.
"Plus the person telling you this is a human, and I'm sure your boss has told you that humans are the biggest liars of all." Heath raised a hand as though to stop a denial. "No, no, I know what kind of things the spirits say about us. I'm a conjure man myself, so I walk the line between the humans and the spirits."
Heath smiled, the patter doing more to calm him than any breathing exercises could have.
"Which is why I know that you have a problem. Because if your boy is dead and you didn't kill him, then you have yourself a head of steam and no target to plunge it into. But that's where I come in. I know just where you can expend that marvelous aggression of yours in a way that your boss would approve of. But I can't tell you unless you step into that triangle and show yourself. Have to know I'm dealing with a reasonable spirit, after all."
Heath took a breath, but the waiting was easier this time. He felt more confident.
He felt even better when he saw the smoke from the incense start to coalesce in the triangle, shifting through a shape that looked almost like a horse until it formed something like a Roman centurion, complete with gladius.
But then he saw the centurion's eyes sparkle, bright orange, and Heath's stomach puckered down and his manhood clung tight against his body.
The sparkling eyes thing. That wasn't supposed to happen.
Heath faced the smoky spirit with scintillating orange eyes from about twenty feet away. Entirely too close in Heath's opinion as he spent a moment wondering if he would have been better off—had a cleaner soul—if he had let himself die at fourteen instead of taking the path of the conjure man.
The spirit was in a triangle Heath had set, and between Heath and it lay His Nibs in the ritual "coffin" that made him look dead to the spirit.
Everything was going right, except for the eyes. Those were a bad sign. If it could make its eyes sparkle while taking form from an incense built around dragon's blood and mugwort, then it wasn't some little bitty sending from some goetic demon. Not one of Samigina's legionnaires, but Samigina, itself, one of the spirits—some said demons and Heath wasn't inclined to argue the point—once bound by King Solomon himself.
If you believed the legends, anyway.
Thirteen hundred and seventy-seven dollars were not enough for this job.
"You claim," said the spirit in a hoarse voice, "that Randall Jason Aldis is dead?"
"I attended the funeral myself," said Heath. "It was a simple service."
"His name is not on the rolls of those who died in a state of sin."
His Nibs—Heath refused to start thinking of the client by anything other than his nickname—chose that moment to twitch, and Heath could see the idiot's ribs moving like he couldn't get enough air. As long as he stayed inside the lines of his "coffin" . . .
"Maybe he got right with the Man Upstairs." Heath shrugged. "Or maybe the list has a clerical error. Some demon got his name down wrong."
"Or maybe you are lying to me, sorcerer."
Heath felt a trickle of sweat run down his back, making his tee shirt cling. This whole thing was going wrong. That purple skull candle would never be strong enough to contain a marquis of Hell. That little gris-gris bag in Heath's pocket with its devil's shoestring, devil nut and asafetida might as well have been just a bag of random herbs for all the good it would do him.
But Heath had done a good job with the Fake-Your-Death ritual. Otherwise Samigina would be on him already.
But that wouldn't be enough. Heath would need all his wit and will to get him to his next sunrise.
"Lying to you doesn't strike me as a recipe for a long and healthy life." Heath shook his backpack. "I'm not even a sorcerer. I'm a root worker. A hoodoo man. Take a look around you. See any fancy circles or names of the Almighty? Anything meant to compel you in the name of an ancient king?"
The smoky body of the demon reached down and picked up the skull candle. Heath bit his lip to hold back a whimper. If the demon could casually pick up a candle, it had enough presence in this world to rip him apart right there in the moonlight.
Heath had definitely undercharged for this gig.
"This," said Samigina, "is a spirit trap."
"That," said Heath, pointing at the skull candle, "is a trap built for a legionnaire, not a marquis. I thought maybe I'd find a wandering spirit that had lost its purpose when your boy choked on that chicken bone." Heath exaggerated a shrug. "Figured you'd never miss one little ghosty for a while, and I'd pick up a familiar who could help me get back at an old enemy before he rejoined your hallowed legions."
"You claim Randall Jason Aldis is dead, and yet I followed him here." Simple words, yet the demon's rough voice made them flat and heavy.
"Yeah, about that . . ." Heath hissed in a breath through gritted teeth, shifted on his feet and scratched his neck. "See, what you have to remember is that I thought I was dealing with a lackey here. Didn't think you'd trouble to come yourself over a little pissant like your target . . ."
Heath let the words trail off, let their implications hang. He tried to study the response of his listener, but Samigina gave him nothing. If it was possible for orange eyes to spark with patience, the demon's did.
Worse, Heath could hear His Nibs snort, as though objecting to Heath's characterization. Stay still, you idiot.
The combination made Heath squirm. He tried to use it, let the quaver come through his voice as embarrassment. "So I came out here to the crossroads and laid a decoy. Baptized a dummy, dressed it in the boy's clothes, and laid it out in a pseudo-coffin. Figured that if I got the links right, the little ghosty would come calling, and, well, you know the rest."
Samigina dropped the skull candle.
"Sorcerer," said the demon, "I don't believe you."
Twenty feet of space between Heath and a goddamn marquis of Hell, there at a true crossroads tucked away deep in a Portland park, where no one could hear Heath scream under the light of the full moon.
Samigina crossed that space in less time than Heath had to see it move.
Smoky dragon's blood and mugwort incense still gave the spirit form enough to grab the sweaty collar of Heath's tee shirt, and bring him eye to eye with it. In the depths of those flickering orange eyes Heath could see its sigil, like a cross above a grave.
Like a cross above his grave.
Those eyes bore into him, hammering at his psyche, demanding that Heath tell the complete, unvarnished truth.
Wit had failed him. Heath had been unable to convince the demon that His Nibs was dead. But the Fake-Your-Death spell held, and would continue to hold as long as Heath could keep himself together.
Where wit had failed, will would have to succeed.
"The truth, sorcerer, where is Randall Jason Aldis?"
Once when he was twelve, the big toe of Heath's right foot had been run over by an eight-cylinder Dodge Ram pickup truck. He never thought he would feel anything heavier than that crushing weight.
He was wrong. Right then Heath felt as though a dozen pickup trucks had parked on his skull.
"In . . . his . . . coffin . . ." Heath could never have guessed if he said those words or only thought them, but the demon heard them either way.
"He is not in my rolls of dead sinners." Simple words, but the eyes shone so bright that Heath could feel their heat on his face. "Where?"
That word roared so loud in Heath's ears that they started to bleed. The pain drove him to his knees. That one word echoed through his skull as though it searched for the answer.
"I . . . was at . . . his funeral . . ."
"Reveal the truth." The earth itself shook with Samigina's words. The sky trembled as though it would shatter and rain shards of moonlight down on Heath as daggers. "Does Randall Jason Aldis live?"
Heath writhed on the ground. Each of his bones felt pulverized. His heart couldn't have been pumping anything but dust and cobwebs. His teeth felt shattered, jagged, ready to rip into his tongue and cheeks the next time his mouth closed. His eyes so squeezed tight that they might burst.
Heath clung for dear life to one thought.
"I . . . threw dirt . . . on his casket . . . myself . . ."
Heath collapsed where he lay in the dirt of the trail under the full moon's light. His every muscle spent and sore. His ears throbbed. He needed his hand to shift his locked jaw and neck.
Minutes passed before he was able to sit.
Heath blinked his eyes open. His Nibs clung to himself, eyes tight shut, still in his "coffin." A wet spot on his jeans suggested that His Nibs had witnessed at least some of what had happened.
That, at least, would be good for Heath's reputation.
Assuming the idiot stayed where he was until Heath gave him the all-clear.
Heath's first attempt to speak failed completely.
His second managed a croak and told him his throat would be raw and sore until he could mix up a little healing gargle.
Finally he managed to say, in a voice almost as hoarse as the demon's, "I know you're still around here, great marquis." Watching to see if Heath made a mistake, but that wasn't how Heath would say it out loud. "I might not have conjured you up from your home for a little chat, but I certainly did call you."
Heath ignored the whimper from His Nibs, and stood up over the protest of his hips, knees, ankles and back. He dug around in his backpack for the flask, and for a pouch of a certain powder.
"Now, I know you're used to working with those ritual magic types. Long frou frou incantations and all that. But that's just not how I was taught to do things." Heath held up his flask full of rum he had charged with power and prayer to make of it a good offering. "I can't say you've been the most polite guest I've ever had, but it's still on me as your host to offer you a drink for the road."
Heath forced his legs to shamble back toward the triangle where the incense still burned. Just a trickle of smoke now, but when Heath relaxed his bloodshot eyes and looked at it sideways, he could see a vague shape in the smoke that told him that the demon waited where it felt the most comfortable.
He stood before the trickle of smoke and said, "I offer you rum, Samigina, and thank you for coming tonight." He poured out a little of the cinnamon-scented brew. "I offer you rum, Samigina, and thank you for leaving me and mine in peace when you depart." Heath poured out another splash. "I offer you rum, Samigina, and I ask you to bear no ill against me and mine for tonight." He poured out a third portion of the charged rum.
And he waited.
What felt like a hour later—but was probably less than a minute—Heath saw a trickle of smoke move to the rum. Something unclenched deep in his gut, and he had to check an urge to sigh in relief.
The smoke moved across the rum. The spirit accepted the offering.
"Now go home!" Heath threw his Vanish Powder at the reputed great marquis of Hell, banishing it back to wherever it was that it actually came from.
Heath dropped onto his backside, whuffing out what could have been a world-class sigh. He held up his flask like a toast. "Thank you, Papa, for keeping an eye on this little fool."
Heath poured out some charged rum for Papa Legba, then took a swig himself. It burned at his raw throat, but tasted sweet on the way down. Sweet as the money in his pocket. Sweet as word on the street would be once His Nibs started telling the tale.
A chuckle rasped its way out. His Nibs.
"Hey! Randall Jason Aldis! It's over. You can come out of your coffin and go home."
His Nibs sat up, but looked afraid to leave the security of his powdered safe zone.
"Are you sure?"
"No. I just got my ass kicked by a demon defending you so I could throw you on its tender mercies."
His Nibs looked unsure, as though unwilling to trust the sarcasm in Heath's voice.
"How did you lie to it? It looked like it was killing you."
"I wasn't lying, you imbecile. Or did you forget the little funeral we had for you earlier?"
His Nibs seemed to need a moment to accept that. "Good thing I kept my mouth shut, huh?"
Heath snorted. "You didn't have a choice. Part of the spell. Think I wanted to risk my life on your ability to hold your tongue?"
Heath wanted to let it go at that, but he had to give the kid his due.
"Good job not moving though. If you'd wiggled out of those coffin lines we'd have both been sunk." That got a smile out of the kid, but that was more than Heath was willing to give Mr. Half-Up-Front. "By the way," Heath added, "you're lucky I could convince myself you're a big enough douchebag to want to be buried in flannel and jeans. You damn near got yourself killed because you wouldn't put on a suit."
Heath shook his head.
His Nibs finally stood up and stepped outside the lines of the "coffin." He walked up and tossed down another three hundred dollars. Where this guy got his money, Heath couldn't imagine. But a tip was a tip, even if it didn't stop him from feeling underpaid for this job.
Still, Heath nodded thanks when he picked up the tip.
"Can I have a swig of that rum now?" said His Nibs.
"I told you," said Heath, shaking his head. "This rum's not for you."