By Victor D. Infante
I wipe the blood from the mirror, then check the time. Almost midnight. Like I said, “The Witching Hour.” Vegas money she’s a traditionalist.
I stop and check my e-mail and change my Facebook status to “Whitney Bierce is melting.”
Showtime. I take my position at the center of the pentagram as a dark gas leaks through the walls, congealing into the misty outline of a person.
Me? I’m calm. Beyond calm. There’s a purpose in all of this now. A pattern stretching back for decades. There are a thousand ghost swirling around my condo now – Abigail Sparks, Esme Kelley, Papa. Hell, Freddie Mercury and Chrissy from “Three’s Company.” The ghosts of an entire culture are my personal light brigade.
“Into the valley of death,” I say, smiling thinly. The crone that’s emerged from the mist is eyeing me, taking my measure.
“Whitney,” says the crone, cordially. She has a walking stick now, and leans on it. She looks frail, but it’s obvious she’s getting stronger. Me? I’m feeling like I’ve barely eaten for days. My throat is parched and my head feels light. I’m being pulled in every direction. Nausea’s welling in my stomach.
“Harriet,” I say, returning her civility. The witch grins, and it may well be the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen. Her grin is a thousand wolves lurking on the other side of shadow.
“So you have figured out who I am,” she says, pleased. “I knew you’d prove a formidable opponent.”
“Really not seeking validation,” I snipe. “Last warning. Leave.”
“I didn’t need this to be a slaughter, Whitney. But I suppose it’s too late for that. Where is the girl?”
“Yeah, hostages,” I say, allowing a thin smile. “Not so much. Look, I get the appeal of the whole Wicked Witch routine. I do. But this has to end. No good’s going to come of it. Like, at all.”
“I can smell her,” says Harriet, looking side to side, a little rattled and manic. “She’s here, somewhere. I will find her.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say. “I’ll get you, my pretty. Little dog, also. I get it.”
What happens next are feints. A crushing force smashes my nice Ikea coffee table, shattering Abigail’s jeweled box. It explodes in a shower of electricity, blue lightning arcing across the room, dissolving harmlessly on shields we’ve both had the good sense to erect.
“I’m sorry,” she says, gloating. “Did you have a use for that old thing?”
“Family heirloom,” I say, my lips pulled back into a sneer. “Something to remember my grandmother by.”
Something is surging in my blood, now. I can feel it. Instantly, I am more awake and more aware than I have ever been. We’re talking Red Bull to the power of a thousand, without jitters. And the ghosts. There are ghost here everywhere. I can feel them. I know what they are. Why they were trapped in the box.
The lightning whips around the living room, coalescing into a solid ball of energy, faster and faster, until finally I throw my arm out, like a baseball player, and catch it in my hand. Without hesitation, I toss it at the old woman, and it screams with the fury of a thousand damned souls confined for centuries. Which they are.
The force of the impact actually staggers the witch, and she stumbles backward. Rage etches her face, and she rips through the electrified souls with claws as sharp as raptor talons. “How had I not noticed those hands before?” I think, but I don’t hesitate to take the advantage.
Blink, and the pair of us are somewhere else entirely, suspended above an ocean of liquefied time – a deep blue burbling that oozes and flows in all directions – standing on spider webs fashioned from the souls of homicide victims. Out of the corner of my vision, I see faces peering from the gossamer strands – here, an eye, there, a flash of lips moving, begging release. Idly, I wonder if Abigail is here, hanging somewhere above the flow of time.
“You’re out of your depth at this level,” says Harriet, not wrong. She looks different here – young, proud. Her hair is long and red, and her green eyes glint with fire and intelligence.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “Moving to higher realms … it’s a feat. One of your grandmother’s tricks. But it takes practice to duel, here. You had better odds in the real world.”
The truth of her words reveals itself as I’m engulfed by thousands upon thousands of insects that I know, instinctively, are composed entirely of regret. I will myself on fire, try to burn them into tiny cinders. Even here, I can smell my hair dissolve in flame, feel my skin blister.
“It’s a waste,” says Harriet, walking gracefully across the spider-web strands that crisscross in all directions, stretching off into infinity. “If you had been my heir, I could have made something of you. A few years, and you might be the greatest of all of us. So young, so smart.”
Her grin is a wolf an instant before it pounces on its prey.
‘Well,” she says. “Mostly smart.”
She slaps my face and I scream in agony, the screech of my voice echoing in all directions, transforming into music as it echoes off the stretched strands of tortured souls.
And not just any music, I realize, and smile in victory. Iggy Pop’s voice, singing strong and defiant above the flow of centuries, echoing above the gurgle of time.
“I’m a street-walking Cheetah with a heart full of napalm … I’m a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb …”
And now Harriet looks confused, unsure of herself, and I’m laughing hysterically, singing at the top of my lungs.
“Soul radiation in the dead of night … love in the middle of a firefight …”
“What … what’s happening here?” Harriet stutters, backing away from me, nearly losing her balance. She gasps, and suddenly we’re back in my living room, with every speaker in the house blaring the same song, full-volume. Steph hovers beside my laptop, a watchful eye on my network connection. Sara watches from the other side of the bathroom mirror, where I had put them for safe-keeping – Another Abigail trick learned on the fly.
“The house … is totally wired,” I say, not as damaged in the real world as I was in the other, but still teetering on collapse from exhaustion. “The pentagram is bull. You walked right into my real circle.”
Magic courses from computer terminal to computer terminal, a circuit of energy, driven by song.
“Look out honey, cause I’m using technology …”
“Iggy Pop saves the world,” I say, defiant as I can muster. “Always knew it would come to this.”
The look on her face? I’d like to say I’m savoring it, but not really. It’s the sort of horror you never actually expect to see in real life. And then, I burn a new sigil into my brain, one pulled from Abigail’s books, a name written in no language ever spoken on Earth, save witch to witch in desperate situations. It’s her name, and it flows from my mouth in harmony with the music. Her name becomes a desperate sneer, and she screams, disintegrating into flakes of skin swirling in a small whirlwind. Her scream outlasts her body. I suspect the entire building will hear the scream distant in the night – every night – until there’s no building standing here at all.
I want to collapse, but it’s not done yet. I push my willpower to the absolute limit, until my mind is touching each flake of skin. With a push, the flakes dissolve into a data stream, downloading onto my lap top.
Steph shudders, hands shaking and teeth chattering as she quickly reaches out and disconnects the external hard drive.
“Is she … is she really in there?” she asks, and I nod. But it’s not done. Not yet. I push with my mind one more time, and the shards of Abigail’s box reassemble, until the box – now empty – sits restored on my floor amid the remains of my coffee table. I’d fix that, too, but my nose is bleeding and I think I may literally have a coronary if I do anything extraneous. Coffee tables can be replaced.
On my nod, Steph dumps the hard drive in the box, and I slam the lid shut.
“It’s done,” I say, as I collapse exhausted and bleeding. “It’s done. It’s …”
And that’s when I black out.