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Beth hated waking up in hospitals. She’d done it twice so far, once after the crash and once after that thing with the fire, and both times there’d been a pinchmouthed sister on one side of her and a cop on the other. This time she only had the one, a gray slab of a man who looked like every flatfoot who’d dragged her and Charlie off somewhere, with a long jaw and colorless eyes. And he didn’t even seem to care about cuffing her, just grunted and walked off as if he’d done his part, now he could stop giving a good goddamn.

“’S right,” Beth mumbled. “You keep walking.”

He paused without looking back, chuckled, then did right as she’d said.

“This one’s new,” said a woman somewhere by her feet. It was a low voice, a sweet and cultured voice, all the vowels where they ought to be and all the consonants sharp and clear, with a lilt to it that she’d heard from some of the big guys’ molls. The don’t worry, daddy, I’ll be good to you voice some men just panted over.

More than all that, it was a money voice.

Beth pushed herself up on her elbows. It wasn’t even a hospital, it was a barracks, bed after bed stretching out as far as she could see until the fog took them, men and women lying on them or getting up from them or fading into view on them. Beth blinked at that, but just then the gray slab brought over another poor sap and dumped him on a bed, just as he must have done with her.

At the foot of the bed stood a woman in a pale green caftan, hair up under a swath of peach silk. It didn’t take two looks to know that this was the money voice, and the diamonds in her ears were just confirmation. The woman had more wealth on her than anything Beth and Charlie had ever netted, and she was walking around like it was nothing. Like there weren’t people around who would, oh, maybe strip her to her bitties, send a bogus ransom note, then tie her to a tree somewhere so’s they’d have time to get to Short Joey’s to fence the lot before she got loose. Beth even had the tree all picked out.

The woman smiled at her, and Beth thought again of the big guys’ molls, how they’d looked at her and her calico and pistol and cigar (even if that last was for show). Like they wanted to be seen pitying her but hungered to do what she did. “You burn bright, don’t you?”

“That’s a goddamn lie,” Beth said, sitting up. “I ain’t burned since that thing with the fire.” She flexed her foot as she said it out of habit, and that was weird, it didn’t hurt, even though she could still see the withered spots through her stocking. “This ain’t a women’s ward. Where’s Charlie?”

Money smiled again, but she was getting bored now. “He must have lived,” she said, and turned away.

“Lived? Screw that. Where’s Charlie? Where’s the cops?” Beth swung her legs off the bed. There had been cops, a half dozen of them. She’d been in the middle of the street, the cops had been on one side, and Charlie had been on the other, next to the car with his useless brother in the driver’s seat. But the cops had seen her first, and they’d had guns, and she’d tried to get to the car, and …

“Don’t take too long to get it.” That was the gray slab again, this time carrying a granny and dumping her on the next bed over. “You’re dead. Move. We need the space.”

“Screw you. I don’t feel dead.” The words came out quick, like they usually did, and she took a second to decide that yes, she meant them, like she usually did. From a few beds down came a startled, scandalized giggle, and Beth looked to see Money with both hands over her mouth, eyes dancing.

She flexed her painless feet again, poked at her skirt. Yes, she could just remember the first bullet tearing the calico, but here it was whole. Well. Dead.

She could work with that.

 


 

Two days after she died, Beth stole the gray slab’s good jacket and cackled when he found it halfway up one of the dead trees by the river. (Good tree for tying someone to. Maybe not Money, though.) He gave her a murderous look, but it vanished on the third day when she stole a flask from someone leaving the big house and gave it to him. “What’s your name?” Beth asked while he was drinking.

He wiped his mouth. “I’m the ferryman.”

“Asked your name, not your job.” She pushed herself up off the bier where she’d been sitting and poked him in the chest. “I’ll call you John if you don’t tell me your name.”

He shrugged, but there was a little crack in the slab. Even so, he didn’t get out of her way two days later when she knocked over one of the judges’ porch chairs and broke the legs off so’s she could take a good whack at the judge when he came bellowing after her. Beth had to duck and roll right past John Ferryman, though maybe he was a little slow to grab for her. The judge was one of three, and nobody liked any of them, which was about the same as for all the judges she’d been hauled in front of in her life. This one had liked to sit out on the porch of the big house, just glaring out at everyone else like he was regretting setting their bail so low. So she’d busted up the chair and chucked what she could into the river.

That was another annoying thing about the place. Sometimes there was a river, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes it was a big field like the ones in Nebraska that she and Charlie had driven through (and stopped in some nights, but there wasn’t any night here). Sometimes it was a city street, or trees, or tents like an army camp. And sometimes it was just fog and the beds with the new dead rising, dropped there by John Ferryman if she focused and just fading in if she didn’t.

What there was, consistent through the days (or what she bothered to count as days), was the big house up the hill. Beth chewed over plans for how to get in there, since if something stuck around that long, it had to be worth something, right? Maybe a vault, maybe a safe, maybe even a way out, if there was such a thing.

In the end, though, she chucked those plans in favor of screwing with the judge. The resulting ruckus was so very worth it, and because they moved one of the guards to watch the porch (there were three guards, all women, each with a Chicago Typewriter and a gimlet eye to go with it), the back of the house went unguarded more often.

Around back was a greenhouse, which set her back for a moment, because it wasn’t like there was a sun here. Still, the side panes opened easy, and it was bright enough inside for not having anything to be bright with. She slid through, landing in a tub full of dahlias.

The greenhouse looked larger on the inside, with a pair of fountains in the middle topped by the grumpy babies you got on art, rows and rows of flowers, and even a few cramped fruit trees. Somewhere a phonograph was playing one of the rinky-tink songs like “Love in Bloom” that she and Charlie had laughed at and danced to, and someone was humming along with it. Beth climbed out of the dahlias and set one foot on the crunching gravel path just as the humming person came around one side of the fountains.

“Oh!” Money said, dropping her clippers. She wore saffron today, a long robe that drifted like smoke, and her hair was down in dark curls. There were still diamonds, though, and sapphires the size of her thumbnail in a choker at her throat, and those sparkly yellow gems she’d never figured out the name of on bangles at both wrists. All of them put the lie to her “just out of the bath” look, as did her full makeup. “It’s you. The burning-bright one.”

Beth dusted off her fingers and held out one hand. “Beth,” she said. “What’s your name?”

Money’s face fell a little, and she gave another of those so-helpless sighs. “Oh, I’ve got a lot of them,” she began.

“Corrie!” a man’s voice called from within the house, deep as a well and twice as stony.

Money grimaced briefly. “But Corrie will probably do. It’s what Haides calls me, after all.” She waved Beth back towards the fountains. “Excuse me a moment.”

Beth ducked behind a fountain, and then peered out from under the grumpy baby’s elbow.

Corrie fluttered to the door of the greenhouse, where a tall, broad man in a gray pinstripe suit loomed. He was dark-haired, just like Corrie—they could have been related—but solid where she fluttered and flowed. More importantly, he wore a ring on either hand, each with a ruby the size of a duck egg.

As if aware of her notice, he looked up and right at her. His eyes narrowed, but he wasn’t angry like the judge or sullen like John Ferryman. He looked annoyed, like she was just one more thing to deal with.

Beth glared right back at him. It was like glaring at a closed bank vault.

He said one more thing to Corrie, who put a hand to her heart in played-up surprise. She watched him walk off, then shook her head, earrings flashing, and returned to pick up the clippers. “He’s a good man, really,” she said quietly. “It’s just his work gets to him.”

“Uh-huh.” Sure it did. “Not your first choice, huh.”

“Not my choice at all … My father arranged it.” She snapped a rose off its stem and failed to catch it. “But it got me away from my father at least, so that’s that. And he does take care of me.” She touched a rose leaf gently, the saw-edges folding under her fingertip. “He made this for me … It’s a beautiful garden.”

“Uh-huh.” That was the tone Beth recognized again, the molls talking about their one good thing they had, like such a nice house he gave me or see this necklace, it’s from Paris or isn’t my little doggy so sweet? Sure enough, a little white mop of a dog shuffled out from behind a peony, yawned around a pink tongue, and yapped vaguely at Beth.

“Quiet, Sir,” Corrie said as Beth crouched down to scratch the mop’s ears.

“What, Sir? Like that big Doberman out front, or the sheepdog John Ferryman feeds?” She snickered as Sir rolled over and yapped again. “Strange to have the same name for three different dogs.”

“Same name, yes.” Corrie trailed off. She gave Beth a sidelong look. “You’re Charlie’s Beth, then?”

“You know him?” She didn’t have a heartbeat anymore, but something leaped in her chest at the sound of his name.

Corrie shook her head. “He’s apparently making a fuss up top. My husband’s seen it all before, says it’ll all end the same, but I wondered …” She set the clippers down and lowered herself to sit, robes fluttering like doves landing. “You burn so bright,” she said, reaching out to pet Beth’s head like she was another lapdog. “It’s not life, it’s not hope … but there’s something there that burns.”

Sheer cussedness, probably. But Beth didn’t want to talk about herself. Harder for anyone to give a description if they didn’t know much about you. “Why do you grow all this?” she asked, hoping that’d do it.

Corrie got that wistful look again. “It reminds me of life. Of all the green growing things under the sun. All the things that I can’t have. All the things now gone.”

Maybe it was because she’d heard Charlie’s name, maybe it was the sheer stupidity of a greenhouse without sunlight, but Beth found her eyes welling up with tears. Horrified and embarrassed, she tried to scrape them away, but they just kept coming.

Corrie patted her again, soothingly. “That’s right. Let it out. All those green growing things, all that life, the sun and the wheat and the first blossoms, all gone.”

Screw you, she almost said. Screw your blossoms and your wheat and your green growing crap, it’s Charlie I want. Charlie with his missing front tooth and his way of whistling through it, Charlie in the passenger seat whooping as she drove down narrow roads, Charlie with his clever hands in the back seat, Charlie laughing as they sped away from the cops.

But she didn’t say it. Not out loud. Not with the flicker of an idea poking at the back of her mind. It wasn’t a full idea yet, but just the sense that there might be an idea, and that it might be good to let Corrie think they missed the same things.

“There, there,” Corrie said. “There, there.”

 


 

The house was bigger, and richer, than she could have imagined. Corrie might say she only had claim on a small part, but that small part was enough for two or three houses put together—and not little ones like where Beth grew up, but real houses, Philadelphia or New Orleans houses, right down to a chandelier in every room. There were halls so high the clouds tried to gather in the ceiling and so wide she couldn’t see the other side—until she could, and she knew the house was changing on her just like the river and the fog outside. She cussed it out, more than once, which always brought a flurry of shocked giggles from Corrie.

All three judges nearly burst their blood vessels with rage when they found out that she was in the big house now, and they cornered her for a good spate of yelling. Beth laughed in their faces and stole the pens from their clipboards. One of them, or maybe all three, complained to the three women guards, but none of the guards gave a damn. That worried Beth a bit; same with the guards’ expressions when they saw her: smug like an old-timer in the prison yard saying you’ll learn.

She stole the drums out of their tommy guns and threw them in the river. Their screeches when they found out were better music than “Love in Bloom.” Corrie was both horrified and mesmerized when Beth told her, putting her hands over her ears (with ruby drop earrings today)—but she asked Beth to tell her again, and again, like someone rereading a scandal mag.

Haides himself favored one or two rooms that didn’t change so much as the rest, including an oak and silver saloon grander than any even in New York. There were plush chairs with velvet deeper than a fox’s fur, a long curving bar inlaid with gold and black wood, and behind it shelves and shelves of bottles. These he shared with those who came in from the fields outside, a glass or two for each, a few words, a pat on the shoulder or a chuck on the chin like the most genial bartender.

She asked one of the judges what he served. “For the deserving,” he sneered. “What do you think we’re here for? Someone’s got to say who’s good enough for it.”

She said what she thought of that, and the judge just laughed. “You’ll learn. Burn as bright as whatever, you’ll still fade in time. Maybe then I’ll reconsider your case.”

Just for that, she stole a bottle and drank half of it in the back of the greenhouse. It was fine, if you liked that sort of thing. She stashed the remainder in among that judge’s stuff, tilted to spill at the first touch.

What really caught her attention, though, was the room behind the bar. She’d gotten a glimpse inside once, when Haides had been slow closing the door behind him. She hadn’t thought there could be so much gold in the world.

“Well, of course,” Corrie said when she mentioned it. “Haides is king over all that lies beneath the earth. That counts gold, silver, jewels … perhaps not amber, I suppose, or pearls …”

“Explains how he keeps you in such style,” Beth returned. Corrie’s wistful smile deepened, and she changed the subject.

The judges were allowed in the storeroom, as were the three women guards. Some of the “deserving” too, to count or goggle or whatever it was they did. She watched them go by and thought about bank jobs, how they got so much easier when she started talking to the tellers, finding out more about them, maybe seeing which ones held a grudge or which ones were just inattentive.

Haides didn’t want to be talked to like that. “I don’t care that you’re a thief,” he’d rumbled at her, adjusting the emeralds on his cuffs. “I’ve had thieves and worse in my employ. You’re already more trouble than you’re worth.” But his gaze had lingered on her, then shifted to Corrie on her perch at the end of the bar.

“It’s not your fault,” Corrie soothed later. “He’s a good man, he just doesn’t trust easily. He only really trusts people who have no hope left.”

Beth snorted. “Hope of what? I’m dead; it’s not like I’m going to carry his secrets away with me.” Corrie hesitated, and she looked away when Beth looked at her. “It’s Charlie, isn’t it?” Beth asked. “You said he’s doing something up top.”

Corrie sighed. “It’s … after a while, you learn to see the shape of these things. Yes. He’s trying to bring you back.”

“Can he do that?” She shook her head. “Can it be done at all?”

“Oh yes,” Corrie said absently. “I mean, look at me … Not the way he’s going about it, though.” She picked Sir up and let him lick at her fingers. “Traditionally, they come down and sing for their lovers. I don’t know, he used to like music …”

That better not be right, she thought. Charlie had a guitar, or his mama did after they’d had to ditch it that one time, but he’d never been able to play much more than “Red River Valley.” Not that she was much better; they made as off-key a pair as any two blue jays. But she put the information away for later and changed the subject again, telling a story about the time she and Charlie had hit a hotel in Illinois that had half-a-dozen acrobats and a dozen nuns staying there at the same time, and Corrie laughed until she nearly dropped Sir.

Haides passed by the door to the greenhouse as they were laughing, and she saw him pause and look from one to the other. The covetousness of that look was almost tangible, like smoke in the air, and it didn’t fade till long after he was gone. And again she thought of the big men and their molls, and the molls’ little dogs. There had been one—she couldn’t remember her name anymore—who’d had a little Pekingese utterly devoted to her, and she’d lavished all her love on it to the point it made Beth sick. And the moll’s big man had noticed, and he’d had that covetous look, and away went the dog. She couldn’t remember whether he’d given it away or claimed it for himself or just dropped it in the river, but the point had been made regardless: it had never been hers, not really.

He wanted her hopeless. Corrie wanted her burning. Charlie—well, Charlie was elsewhere, and she couldn’t plan on what she didn’t know. But she could work with what she had.

 


 

Time passed, maybe a couple of weeks, maybe more. It was hard to say in the big house, and worse outside. (She still went outside now and then. Brought John Ferryman some of the hooch from the unguarded shelves, scritched Sir the collie behind the ears and rubbed the belly of Sir the watchdog. Sir the fuzzy mop was always so happy after she gave the watchdog a scritch, yapping like a windup toy.) Corrie switched back and forth between delighting in Beth’s mischief and fretting over what Haides might say.

And then, one day when the fog was so heavy it made the windows creak in their casings, John Ferryman came up to the main doors. He wasn’t alone, but he wasn’t carrying the person this time; he was leading someone, someone walking all on his own, carrying a large case and limping just a bit.

Beth was in the main saloon, teaching Corrie rummy with a half-hand-drawn pack of cards. They’d been spending more time there—Haides hadn’t said outright that he was keeping an eye on them, but it was clear to anyone with sense—which suited her just fine, as she could keep watching the door to the storeroom as Haides and the judges and the guards went back and forth.

When John Ferryman opened the main doors, everyone looked up, silent as an interrupted funeral. Then Haides cursed under his breath and pulled at the air, and the fog swept in around them. He cast a glance at Beth, muttered something like “‘Camptown Races’ on a harmonica, if that’ll get rid of her,” and turned to face the doors. “Ferryman,” he called. “What brings you so far from the river?”

John Ferryman stepped to one side, and there he was, her Charlie, skinny and short and wearing a suit borrowed from his useless brother, hat all cockeyed and six days’ beard scruffing his cheeks. She started to get up, but Corrie grabbed her hand. “He can’t see us,” she whispered, pointing.

Sure enough, Charlie’s eyes were wide and frantic, even though his gaze swept over Beth a half-dozen times as he scanned the room. “Well,” he said with that little stutter she’d punched a man for mocking. “I’m here.” And she could have cussed the fog blue, because he was holding the damn guitar case, and surely he hadn’t lost his mind that much since she’d been gone?

“Yes.” Haides smiled. “Here you are.”

“I’m here for Beth.” He paused, and she tried to pull free, but Corrie held her arm tighter than an oak root round a stone. “I know there’s a way of doing this. I talked to the old women, and the man with the boots, and everyone, and they all said there was a way to do this. To bring her back home.”

“Then make your case, musician.”

Charlie swung the case around and set it flat, then knelt to unclasp it. “You know, I could do just that,” he said—

—and Beth started to grin—

“Except I know I ain’t no musician. All I can make is a ruckus.”

—and now it was Beth’s turn to yank Corrie down, tip over the table and pull the two of them behind it, because that was no guitar.

The first burst from Charlie’s tommy gun hit the bottles above the bar. Deserving and undeserving alike shattered, spraying glass everywhere. The judges coming out of the storeroom all yelled, and then yelled louder as the next burst hit them. A third shattered mirrors and windows and even knocked the chandelier sideways. The smell of cordite and liquor filled the air, brighter than any fog, and Beth started laughing.

“That’s it,” Charlie called. “That’s the sound I’ve come to hear.” Something new shattered against the far end of the saloon, and now there were flames, spreading up the walls and floor. “Come on out, sweetheart!”

She finally pulled free of Corrie and ran out from behind the table, still laughing. But Haides was there. “Little idiot!” he roared, catching Beth by the shoulder. “What harm can you do to those already dead? This is your idea of threatening me?”

Threaten?” Charlie sounded really sincerely offended. “This ain’t no threat, dead man. This is just me getting up to what I do best.” He lowered the tommy gun and gestured to the shattered bottles, the flaming chairs, the perforated and groaning judges, the guards picking glass out of each other. “No, I figure since I can’t sing a note, I got a better chance of just doing what me and Beth do best. Over and over. Till you get so sick of us you kick us both out.” With that he fired another burst, and the chandelier gave up its last grip on the ceiling.

Haides cast Beth a disgusted look, and her laughter froze in her throat. So did all her voice, not a cry nor a laugh nor a sneeze. He held her gaze, and she could almost see him tallying it up, how much of a mess they could make against sending her back against letting her get away with leaving. Something about that last tipped the scale, and he shook his head. “The two of you …” he muttered. “Fine. She may follow you up to the living world, for whatever good it will do you before you’re both knocked back down here again.”

He let her go, and she ran to Charlie, who dropped the gun and caught her, pressing his face against her shoulder.

“But,” Haides went on as the two of them pulled back just enough to look at each other, “I assume your guides told you the rules. She may follow you, but if you look back once before you reach the living world, she will return here.”

Behind her, she heard a stifled sound from Corrie, some emotion smothered before it could draw attention.

“Don’t look back,” Charlie said, gazing into her eyes. “I got it.”

Beth tried to answer, but her voice was still gone, held somehow by Haides. Charlie turned, and she followed, out through the fog. John Ferryman lay to one side, the holes in his gut slow to close. She glanced at him and was sorry, but only for a moment.

The road they followed up hadn’t been there before, or she’d overlooked it, or it’d been like the river that was sometimes there. Road turned to ramp and ramp to stairs, like the back halls of a hotel, and still Charlie didn’t turn around.

When they reached the last landing, the daylight cool and bright through the door a flight up, her voice returned. She gasped, then took a step closer to him, so that she was on the same broad stair. “Charlie.”

He froze and almost turned. “This is a trick,” he whispered.

“Yeah, but not one of mine. Don’t turn around.” She slid her arms around his waist.

He gave a shuddering sigh. “You’re not her. You’re him doing her voice somehow.”

She chuckled. “Remember what we did in the back room of that one church in Ohio, the one with the pond out front?” Her hands slid lower, just briefly.

Charlie groaned and laughed together. “I’d have cleared my soul to a priest, except I knew the coppers would just have to follow the trail—”

“—of priests having heart attacks in the confessional,” she said with him, and grinned into his shoulder.

His laugh went ragged. “Sweet lord, I missed you. It nearly killed me when they got you. I wish it had.”

“Don’t you wish that.” She held him tight, and then made herself relax. “But there is a trick here, I’m sure of it. That rich bastard gave me back my voice only when he knew we’d be close. He wants you to turn round.”

“Figured as much.”

“Well, it ain’t the only dirty pool he’s playing. Your right foot still hurt?”

“Like the devil, after all this walking.”

“My left leg don’t hurt. And it’s still all burnt—it’s not healed, just not hurting. And I can’t feel my heart beat.” She pressed her forehead to the back of his neck. “Even if we do make it up there, he’s sent me up still dead.”

Charlie shivered. “I should have known.”

“No, he should have played fair. But he won’t, so we won’t either. You remember the way we did the bank jobs?”

He didn’t speak, just nodded.

“There’s a real way to come back, and that man’s girl knows how it’s done. She won’t tell me now, but she might tell someone without a hope in hell of getting out. And the gold that man has … everything under the earth, they said. You saw it, in the house?”

Charlie shrugged, the muscles moving under her cheek as she turned her head. “I’d say I only had eyes for you, but you’d know I was lying. Yeah, I noticed. Guy’s got a ring could buy us a house.”

“He don’t trust me now, he don’t trust anyone who’s still got hope. But if I go slinking back all sorry, like I lost my last chance, well …” She leaned close to his ear. “I could be your girl on the inside.”

She could feel the laugh rolling up through his chest, from under her hands to up against her breasts and out through his beautiful mouth. “You are wicked, wicked and brilliant.”

“Have to be, to deserve you.” She made herself pull her hands back, away from him. “Don’t come back right away, but don’t take too long, okay? I missed you more than I miss breathing.”

He gave a shaky nod. “It’s been—without you, I—”

She grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around, and kissed him. It lasted long, sweet and salt and not enough time, never enough. “They’ll never see us coming,” she whispered.

Charlie grinned at her. “Not in a million years.”

The stairs shifted underfoot, pulling them apart, stretching like the reflection in a fun-house mirror. He reached for her, but she was already so far below, and the stairs above were collapsing, combining, so that he stood only one step from daylight. He said something—her name, maybe—then turned and walked out into the living world.

She turned her back on the light and put her hands to her face, letting the shivers run through her, the pain of loss where there had been no pain before. “Never see us coming,” she repeated, and descended again. With every step she worked harder to look lost, hopeless, beaten … no one to worry about anymore.

Not in a million years.



Margaret Ronald is the author of Spiral Hunt, Wild Hunt, and Soul Hunt, as well as a number of short stories. Over the years, she has worked in fields from media to academia to biotech, usually on the margins where the view is better. Originally from small-town Indiana, she now lives outside Boston.
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