the suicide forest (the river book 5)

 

The Suicide Forest

 

By Michael Richan

 

 

By the author:

 

The River
series:

The Bank of the River

Residual

A Haunting in Oregon

Ghosts of Our Fathers

Eximere

The Suicide Forest

Devil’s Throat

The Diablo Horror

The Haunting at Grays Harbor

It Walks At Night

 

The Downwinders
series
:

Blood Oath, Blood River

The Impossible Coin

The Graves of Plague Canyon

 

The Dark River series:

A

 

All three series are part of
The
River Universe,
and there is crossover of some characters and plots. For a
suggested reading order, see the
Author’s Website
.

 

 

Copyright 2014 by Michael Richan

All Rights Reserved.

All
characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

www.michaelrichan.com

This book is available in print at
most online retailers.

ASIN:
B00IUM9416

Published by Dantull (148315127)


 

 

Table
of Contents

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

 

 

 

For The Stacys

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

“Come in,” the woman said, stepping aside to let Steven and
Roy enter her house. It was a normal mid-century home common to the area of
Beacon Hill, a neighborhood south of downtown Seattle. Across the street was a
park, abandoned at the moment.

Steven and Roy stepped inside. It was furnished simply but
comfortably, with magazines stacked on a coffee table and an older style
television in the corner. Steven noticed a framed picture of JFK on the wall.

“Please, sit,” she said. “Would either of you like some
coffee? Let me grab some from the kitchen.”

Steven sat with Roy on a sofa in the living room. Roy was
holding an old book they intended to give to her, once they could explain to
her where they got it. Steven looked around the room. Fake flowers in a vase
over the mantle. A display of tiny ceramic bells on framed shelves.

“There we are,” she said, setting down a tray with coffee mugs.
“Please help yourself.”

“Mrs. Williamson,” Steven began.

“Please, call me June,” she said. Steven looked at her – she was
in her mid-fifties, a little grey around the edges, but slim and well dressed.
She looked like she might be going to work. Her voice was soft and lilting,
floating just above a normal voice, and it sounded as if it had a slight accent
that he couldn’t place. Every word she spoke seemed deliberate and perfectly
pronounced. When she began to pour the coffee, he noticed her movement was slow
and graceful.

“June,” Steven said, “as my father probably told you on the
phone, we believe we’ve found something that belongs to you. We think it’s a
book that your husband was intended to inherit. I hope you don’t think of this
as a strange question, but did your husband…” Steven always found describing
his abilities an awkward thing. The words always jumbled up.

“Did he what?” she asked.

“Did he have ‘the gift,’ as they call it,” Roy interjected.
He smiled at her, a little nervously, unsure if she’d think him a crackpot.

“Ah,” she said. “I thought so.” She set her mug down delicately
and slowly walked into another room.

Steven looked at Roy, concerned.
Was she pissed?
he
thought. He had no idea how she’d just taken the question, and was worried she
might emerge with a shotgun.

Instead, she emerged with a book of her own. She sat back
down, and turned it to Steven and Roy.

“When you mentioned a book,” she said, “I thought of this.”
She handed it to Roy, who took it and flipped through the pages. He recognized some
of the writings.

“He kept that book the entire time we were married,” June
said. “It’s his writings, and I think his mother’s writings are in it, too. I
looked through it once after he passed, but I couldn’t make any sense of it.”

“We believe the book we’ve brought,” Steven said, “was
written by your husband’s grandfather. We believe he intended to pass it along
to his heir, your husband’s mother, but it was stolen from him and he never got
the chance.”

A loud bang came from the kitchen, startling Steven and Roy.
At first Steven thought it was a gunshot, but then he realized it must have
been the slam of a cabinet door. June didn’t look startled by the noise, just
annoyed.

“Ah,” Roy said, taking a breath, “your daughter and grandson
must have returned.”

“No,” June said, “they’re both still out.”

“You said you wanted to meet privately,” Roy said. “I assume
we’re not alone.”

“Depends on what you mean by alone,” June said. “I do want to
talk to you about that,” she said, nodding in the direction of the kitchen,
“but let’s talk about the book first. You say my husband was supposed to have
it?”

“We believe so, yes,” Roy said. “We came across it in our
work, and felt we should return it to you.”

“And what sort of work do you do?” June asked.

“Well, I’m retired,” Roy said, “and Steven’s on a sabbatical
of sorts…”

“Oh, not that kind of work,” June said. “I mean the kind of
work my husband used to do. The work described in these books.”

“So you do know your husband was gifted,” Steven said,
wanting to hear her say it out loud.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Of course.” She looked at both of them,
and they seemed to exhale and relax into the sofa simultaneously. “Oh, I’m
sorry to both of you. You didn’t know I knew. I should have told you.”

“That’s alright,” Steven said. “It’s just that sometimes
people don’t know, and then it’s really awkward.”

“Yes, my husband had the gift,” June said. “He used it his
whole life. I was rarely part of it, but I knew he had abilities, and that he
was quiet about it. Sometimes he would tell me things, but usually not. He kept
that book the entire time I knew him. If you’re telling me the book you’ve
brought belongs to him, I believe you. I’ll be happy to keep it with his book.”

“Perhaps at some point,” Roy said, “the books might be passed
along? To your daughter?”

“Perhaps,” June smiled weakly. Another loud bang came from
the kitchen. It sounded as if someone had slammed a cabinet door shut as hard
as they possibly could.

“What is going on?” Roy said. “What’s all the racket in
there?”

June sighed. “I was hoping it might happen while you were
here, to convince you,” she said. “But apparently they’re upset.”

“Who is ‘they’? Who’s in the kitchen?” Steven asked.

“There’s no one in the kitchen,” she said. “Come with me.”

She stood and walked towards the kitchen. Steven and Roy
followed.

“You see?” she said, glancing around the kitchen. It was
silent, with all cupboards closed and everything appearing to be in order.

“Someone slammed the cabinet doors,” Steven said.

“Yes,” June said. “You never see it happen. You just hear it
from another room. I would never say this to anyone for fear they’d think I’m
crazy, but I suspect I can say it to you without fear of that. I’m convinced
the house is haunted.”

“How long has this been going on?” Steven asked.

“Since we moved in,” she replied, “three months ago. Not so
much at first. The last few weeks it has increased. But I haven’t heard bangs that
loud in so short a time. They must be upset you’re here.”

“You’re sure no one’s here?” Roy said.

“Yes, I’m sure,” June said, grabbing the coffee pot and
leaving the kitchen. They returned to the living room with her. “My daughter
and grandson left earlier. They won’t be back until this afternoon. More
coffee, Steven?”

“Thank you,” he said, watching as she refilled his mug.

“Frankly, when we talked on the phone, Roy,” she said, “it
occurred to me that you might have skills similar to my husband’s, and that you
might be able to help. Neither my daughter nor I have the money for another
move, and I know if Mark were still here he’d know what to do. You’re welcome
to use his books if you think it might help.”

“What about your daughter?” Roy asked. “Is she able to help?”

“Are you asking me if she has ‘the gift’?” June said. “Yes, I
believe she does, but she won’t use it.”

“Why not?” Steven asked.

“Things didn’t go well between my late husband and her,” June
said. “There was a time in her teens when he was teaching her things. But when
he died, it all came to an abrupt end. She rejected it all, became very
rebellious. I had my hands full with her, let me tell you. She was in and out
of jail for theft, drugs, you name it. Once she had Robbie, the chill between
us came to an end, and she let me help. She’s been better, she’s tried to be a
good mother. But I don’t think she’s ever used her gift since those says with
Mark. I think she still rejects it all. We don’t talk about it.”

“And the bangings?” Steven asked. “What does she think of
that?”

“I know she’s heard them,” June said. “But she’s never said
anything. She has an ability to ignore things that she doesn’t want to see.”

“What about her son?” Roy asked. “Do they scare him?”

“Robbie comes running to me when he’s scared,” June said,
“not to his mother. I think he’s run into a few things that have upset him, but
I can’t be sure. With kids, you never know if it was a nightmare, or something
they imagined.”

“Do you think Robbie has the gift?” Steven asked, thinking of
his own son, Jason.

“I have no idea,” she said. “My daughter might know, but
she’d never discuss it. Maybe you’d know if you met him?”

“Maybe,” Roy said. “When they’re young it’s hard to know. How
old is Robbie?”

“Ten,” June said. “Next month.”

“Puberty is when it starts to kick in,” Roy said. “I suppose
we could meet with him if you’d like.”

“What I was hoping,” June said, “is that you’d help me with
the bangings?” She smiled weakly at them both. “I know it’s a lot to ask,
especially from someone you just met. I don’t really have anywhere else to
turn. They’re annoying and I could live with them if I had to, but I worry for Robbie.
They seem to center around him. I think they might really scare him, or worse, and
he doesn’t deserve that. I know Mark would have known what to do. I’m hoping
you might know.”

Steven looked at Roy, and they exchanged a quick glance.
“Steven and I are working on a larger project,” Roy said, “but let us think
about it for a few days, if you would?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Anything you could do to help
would be appreciated, even if it’s something small you could fit into your
schedule.”

Roy handed both books back to June. “Here,” he said, “keep
these together. They should all go to your daughter, but maybe they’ll go
straight to Robbie someday.”

“And with that,” Steven said, arising from the sofa, “we’ll
be on our way.”

They all exchanged goodbyes and Steven and Roy were soon back
in Steven’s Honda, driving the short distance back to his home in Seward Park.

“Nice that she’s so close,” Steven said to Roy as they
travelled. “I worry one of the books might wind up taking us to China or
something.”

“We’ll ship the book if that’s the case,” Roy said. “I don’t
mind delivering these books to people within a day’s drive, but otherwise we’ll
box ‘em up and ship them. They’ve been kept from their rightful owners for
multiple generations, so who knows if the inheritors even want them. For a
moment I worried that June thought we were crazy.”

“What do you think about the house?” Steven asked. “Do you
want to help her?”

“I always want to help,” Roy said. “Sometimes it gets me into
more trouble than it’s worth. Like Medford.”

“Or Eximere?” Steven asked, referring to the place where
they’d located all the books they were now returning to their heirs.

“Well,” Roy said, “Eximere is an excellent example of
something we shouldn’t have gotten involved with, but turned out to be a
fantastic opportunity. Every book we return corrects a mistake from the past.
You don’t often get that kind of a chance in life.”

“No,” Steven said, “I suppose not.”

They drove a moment in silence before Steven spoke again.

“Do you believe in evil?” Steven asked Roy.

“Why are you asking me that?” Roy said. “Seems like an odd
question coming from you.”

“I know you were never a religious person,” Steven said. “Neither
was I. But when we were dealing with Michael and Lukas, I felt something in our
interaction with them that was different. Not like Jurgen or Anita, who seemed
like bad people who chose to do dark things. Lukas was different. He didn’t
seem…”

Steven struggled for the right word.

“Human?” Roy offered.

“Yeah,” Steven said, “I guess that’s it. The ghosts we’ve
dealt with, they’ve all had a certain humanity to them. As fucked up as they’ve
been, they were still rooted in some routine that was normal, some aspect of
human life. Mundane sometimes. Lukas didn’t feel that way.”

“I agree,” Roy said. “Lukas was different.”

“Have you dealt with others like Lukas?” Steven asked.

“Only once before,” Roy said. “It’s mostly been ghosts for
me. I’ve tried to avoid creatures like him.”

“So I come back to my original question,” Steven asked. “Do
you believe in evil?”

“I guess I’m going to need you to define what you mean by
it,” Roy said. “People throw that word around a lot.”

“Satan,” Steven said. “The devil. That kind of thing.”

“Put that way, no, I don’t,” Roy said. “But if you mean the
opposite of what’s good and decent, yes, I believe that exists. I think
religions give it names that fit in with their theology. But it’s the same
thing.”

“Do you think it’s something that exists in its own place,”
Steven asked, “or is it something specifically designed to interact with
humans?”

“Christ, where is all this coming from?” Roy asked. “I feel
like I’m in Philosophy 101. Or worse, seminary.”

“Something I felt in June’s house,” Steven said. “Something
that reminded me of Lukas.”

“Reminded you how?” Roy asked.

Steven pulled his car into his driveway. “You want some more
coffee? I wouldn’t mind a fresh pot.”

“Sounds good,” Roy said, getting out of the car and walking
with Steven into the basement door of his home. “Reminded you how?”

“Well,” Steven said, “I remember when we were dealing with
Lukas. The child disappearances, his pact with Michael, all of that. It was all
horrific, all on its own. But when we’d encounter him in my house, in the
hallway, I remember thinking that he was pure evil. A ridiculous thought, in a
way, since I’m a rationalist and not a churchgoer. But I never had a better way
to describe the feeling. It was almost subconscious, or something that
triggered my animal brain, something I couldn’t really control. Jesus, the hair
stands up on the back of my neck just thinking about it now.”

Roy followed him upstairs and Steven began to prepare a new
pot of coffee. “So when we walked into June’s house,” Steven said, “I felt
something was wrong, right off the bat. And then, when we walked into the
kitchen – hair went up on the back of my neck, that same animal brain
reaction.”

“I didn’t have that reaction,” Roy said. “Maybe it’s just
something I’m not tuned into.”

“Kind of like the way an animal stops and knows it shouldn’t
go into a particular area,” Steven said, “because something tells it there’s a
predator watching. They can’t see it, but they sense something is wrong. Some
other sense or combination of things tells them.”

“You felt all that in June’s kitchen?” Roy asked.

“I did,” Steven said. “First it gave me the willies and I
thought maybe it was just a momentary thing, like when a goose walks over your
grave. But it didn’t stop. The longer we stayed in that room, the more I felt
we were being watched.”

“Well, there’s no reason to not take her at her word,” Roy
said. “The place could certainly be haunted.”

Steven watched as the coffee brewed. “Yes, of course,” he
said. “But this wasn’t that. This was deeper somehow.”

“What do you mean?” Roy asked.

“I’d categorize the various things we’ve run into three ways,”
Steven said. “First are the humans who know about the River and operate within
it, on both the good and bad sides of the fence. Eliza is obviously with us, on
the good side. Jurgen was on the bad.”

“OK,” Roy said.

“Second are the ghosts,” Steven continued. “Ben, that woman
in the room next to mine in Mason Manor, the ghosts in the basement, Robert
Maysill. Scary, but most of the time innocuous, if you know what you’re doing.”

“You’ve not met enough of them,” Roy said. “Anita was not
innocuous. She was a very dangerous ghost.”

“Agreed,” Steven said.

“I’ve met several ghosts that were just as dangerous,” Roy
said, wanting to make his point.

“No, you’re right,” Steven said. “I agree with you. I
shouldn’t have called them innocuous. But they all have certain similarities.
As you’ve said, they’re self-obsessed, and because of it they’re a little
stupid. They can be manipulated. You manipulated James Unser magnificently.”

“Thank you,” Roy said.

“But there’s this third group,” Steven said. “I would count
Lukas in it. Not human, right? Not a ghost. Something else. And it seemed to
me, something worse. Not stupid like a ghost – the opposite of it. He was
smart, completely focused on something he wanted. And…evil. I have a hard time
finding another word for it.”

“I guess evil is as good a word as any,” Roy said, “since
what they seem to be after is the opposite of what I consider good and right.”

“Or maybe it’s just a natural order of things,” Steven said.
“Does an antelope consider a lion to be evil?”

“Of course not,” Roy said. “You’re taking this too far. An
antelope considers a lion to be
dangerous
.”

“But not because it was taught that,” Steven said. “It just
knows. Instinct. That’s what this is. It felt more powerful than any other
instinct I’ve ever had.”

“So what are you saying?” Roy said. “You think there’s
something dangerous in her house?”

“Yes, I do,” Steven said. “It may well be haunted. So was my
home, here, before you helped me get rid of Lukas. I wouldn’t be surprised to
find ghosts there. But there’s something that’s worse than Mason Manor, or the
Unser House, in her home. I felt it.”

“I wish you had more to go on,” Roy said. “Since I didn’t
feel it, I can’t really relate.”

“I think we should help her,” Steven said. “Even if it means
a pause in our book deliveries. I think she’s worse off than she knows. I think
her daughter and grandson are in danger, too.”

Roy looked at Steven, slightly skeptical. “You seem very sure
of yourself,” Roy said. “I have no problem stopping to help her. But the thing
I wonder is, are
you
ready? You’re far more impressionable by this
‘evil’ than I am, apparently. Are you sure you want to jump in, wherever it
might lead?”

“I think so,” Steven said, seeing the last drips from the
coffee pot and removing it to pour himself and his father a mug. “I think we
have to. I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to do when I learn that someone’s
life is at risk.”

“It’s as bad as that?” Roy asked.

“Yes, I think it is,” Steven said, sipping his coffee. “And I
can’t shake it. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become. If we
don’t help them, one or all of them could die.”

“Alright then,” Roy said, “we’ll do it. Let’s call her back.”

Chapter Two

 

 

 

Steven hadn’t been very close with his father until recently,
when his father helped him with a problem in his new house. Steven had been let
go from his long-held job, and was taking a sabbatical from work life to enjoy
his new home, but the house had been doing strange things, making knocking
noises in the middle of the night, and he’d seen some things that made him
think he was losing his mind. When Roy learned what was happening, he helped
Steven realize he wasn’t crazy – his house really was haunted. Roy had “the
gift” and helped Steven realize that he had it too – he’d just been too
rational and unbelieving to ever notice it and use it. They resolved Steven’s
haunting problem, and Roy began teaching Steven how to use the gift he inherited.
Since that time, they helped a few friends resolve problems they had with
hauntings, and Steven met other people who shared his ability.

Steven and Roy were both able to enter a place they called
“The River,” an alternative perspective on the world, constantly in motion,
swirling around and through everything. When they jumped into the River, they
could see things that most people couldn’t. The ability to see things in the
River was what most people considered “the gift.” Steven inherited it from Roy,
and Roy inherited it from his father.

Roy spent many years learning from his father, David. David gave
Roy a book he kept, recording his experiences and knowledge. David inherited it
from his father and grandfather. It was a thick, hand-made book, with sections
belonging to each of his progenitors. Each section was bound onto the previous
one, so the book was a little unusual in shape and the subject matter within
was without an index or guide – you just had to read it to pick things up.

Unfortunately, Steven couldn’t read much of it. Although it
was written in English, none of it made any sense to him – until he experienced
something related to what he was reading. The experience gave him context that
made sections of the book understandable. Roy had much more experience dealing
with the River, and was able to read and understand a great deal more of the
book than Steven could. But he was beginning to pick it up. As they encountered
other ghosts and unusual creatures and objects, more and more of the book came
into focus for Steven. But he still understood only ten percent of it.

As they drove back to June Williamson’s house to meet with
her once again, Steven considered how much of the book he understood – which
was very little compared to Roy – and it surprised him that Roy didn’t seem to
detect the same sense of evil that Steven detected at her house. Maybe it was
something he was more tuned to, to use Roy’s words. Part of him was dreading
setting foot in the house again, but when he was working with Roy, Steven found
there was a sort of momentum that built between them that always pushed things
forward, sometimes unwittingly carrying them along. He decided they should help
June, and Roy agreed. Now the train was on rails, and Steven knew it’d be hard
to stop it, even if he wanted to.

“Come in!” June said, looking down as she opened the door. “I
can’t thank you both enough for agreeing to help me,” she said, ushering them
inside and inviting them to sit once again in her living room. Steven noticed
that she hadn’t looked up at them.

“June,” Steven said, “is something wrong?”

June didn’t respond, just kept looking down. She finally
raised her head to face them, and Steven gasped. There was a large cut on her
left cheek, and bruises around her right eye.

“Jesus Christ!” Roy said. “What happened to you?”

“I’m fine, really,” she said, a weak smile appearing briefly
on her face, but the smile caused her cut to open, and she stopped smiling when
she felt the pain.

“You don’t look fine,” Steven said. “What happened?”

“It was stupid, really,” she said. “I got in the way.”

“In the way of what?” Roy asked.

“One of the ghosts, I suppose,” she said. “Robbie had tripped
on something in the kitchen, and I went over to him to see if he was all right.
I don’t know how I fell. Robbie didn’t either. I think the same ghost that
tripped him, tripped me. Anyway, I went down, right at the edge of the table.
Hit my eye, you can see it’s pretty banged up. Then — this is so stupid — I
reached up to the table to pull myself up, and there was a knife there that I
knocked somehow. It came down and hit my cheek. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t lose
my eye.”

“You were right,” Roy said, turning to Steven.

“Right?” June asked. “About what?”

“My son feels you’re in danger,” Roy said. “He noticed
something the last time we were here. It’s why we’ve agreed to help you.”

“What did you notice?” June asked Steven. “Did you see
something?”

“No,” Steven said, “felt. I felt something.”

“What was it?” she asked.

Steven didn’t want to alarm June. He felt sorry for her,
seeing her banged up and cut. She was already clearly worried about her child
and grandchild. He didn’t want to add to her stress.

“I think you’re right,” Steven said. “There’s something here,
and we need to help you get rid of it. I don’t know what it is exactly. But
we’ll do what we can.”

“What can I do to help?” June said. “What do you need?”

“We want to start by finding out more about the ghosts that
are here,” Steven said. “The first thing we’d like to try is a trance. My
father will go into a meditative state, and he’ll be able to see what’s in the
house. Then we’ll go from there.”

“Do you think it will take more than an hour?” June said. “My
daughter and grandson are due back in about that time.”

“I would expect we’d be done with the first trance by then,”
Roy said. “Since I will be blindfolded, Steven will watch over me to make sure
I don’t get up and walk into something.”

“Do you want me to stay?” June asked.

“Yes, you can stay,” Steven said. “Just don’t make any noise,
don’t say anything, unless for some reason Roy talks to you during the trance.
He usually doesn’t. We won’t know much until he comes out of the trance and
tells us what he saw.”

“Alright,” June said. “I’ll be as silent as a mouse.” She sat
back in her chair, watching Steven wrap the blindfold around Roy’s head. Using
a blindfold was Roy’s preferred method of inducing a trance, which was a step
deeper than the River. Roy was an expert at trancing, but Steven hadn’t yet
mastered the art of it. Steven had learned how to enter and exit the River at
will, but he’d only been in a trance a couple of times, and most of the time
he’d joined trances already initiated by Roy. He hadn’t developed the skill to
start a trance on his own.

After applying the blindfold, Steven sat back down on the
couch, next to Roy. He entered the River himself, knowing it would take Roy at
least five or ten minutes to go deeply enough to enter the trance. The moment
he entered the River he knew it was a bad idea. He felt sick and nauseous, as
though he wanted to vomit. There was a stench in the air that smelled like a
mixture of rotten eggs and excrement. He felt the hair stand up on the back of
his neck, his animal brain reacting on full alert. He dropped out of the flow
and back to reality, feeling a small stab of pain at the back of his neck – a
side effect of leaving the River that always seemed to occur.

Steven looked at Roy. He knew Roy would have entered the
River first before proceeding to the trance.
He must have sensed it,
Steven thought. Steven wanted to try entering the River again, but his job,
while Roy was trancing, was to watch over Roy and make sure he was physically
OK. What he’d seen in the River in just the few seconds he’d been in it made
him think going back into the River was a bad idea. Something was definitely
wrong here, and he needed to stick with his assignment to watch over Roy rather
than explore on his own.

Most of the trances he’d seen Roy perform lasted from ten to
thirty minutes, depending on what Roy was trying to find out. Steven was
settling back into the sofa to wait out this trance when Roy abruptly stood and
removed the blindfold from his head. Steven, startled, jumped to his feet.

“Are you OK?” Steven asked Roy, concerned. Roy had been in
the trance only a minute. He’d never seen him leave a trance so suddenly and so
quickly.

“I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you,” Roy said to June. “Steven,
we’re leaving.”

Roy began walking to the door, wadding the blindfold up and
stuffing it into his coat pocket.

“What happened?” Steven asked.

“You won’t be able to help?” June asked, confused, rising to
her feet.

“I’ll explain later,” Roy said, not turning around. “Steven,
let’s go.”

Steven stood and looked at June. They shared a confused look,
then Steven followed Roy. Roy opened the door and walked out, heading to
Steven’s car.

Steven walked through the door and turned back to June. “I’m
sorry, I don’t know what happened.”

June looked like she wanted to cry. “Did I do something
wrong?” she asked Steven.

“No,” Steven said, “I don’t think it was anything you did.”

“Steven!” Roy called from the car. “Come at once!
Now!

As Steven watched he saw a small cut form in the flesh of
June’s neck, a couple of inches below her chin. Her skin was wrinkled there, as
it was in many older women, and he watched as the cut widened to be about an
inch wide. Blood began to drip from the cut.

“You’re bleeding,” he said to her, point to his own neck. “On
your neck, here.”

Her eyes grew wide and she held her fingers up to her neck.
She felt the warmth of the liquid and pulled her fingers away so she could
examine them. When she saw the dark red on her fingers, she gasped and raised
her other hand to her throat.

“Go inside and bandage it,” Steven said.


Steven!
” Roy bellowed, insistent.

“I’ll call you when I know what’s going on,” he said, leaving
her at the door and returning to the car.

“What was that about?” he asked Roy, outside the car.

“Get in the car and drive,” Roy said. “We need to get out of
here.”

 


 

After they were several blocks from the house, Steven
repeated his question. “Tell me why I left her bleeding on the porch like
that?”

“We were the cause,” Roy said. “Had we stayed any longer, it
might have been worse.”

“We were the cause of what?” Steven asked. “What did you see
in the trance?”

“The reason she was all banged up in the first place was
retaliation for our visit to her yesterday,” Roy said. “In the trance, I didn’t
get much past the River before I saw the blade at her throat.”

“Blade?” Steven asked, incredulous. “At her throat?”

“I had the distinct impression,” Roy said, “that if I went
any further, whatever or whoever was controlling the blade would use it on
her.”

“There was a cut on her throat,” Steven said, “as I was
leaving her at the door. I saw it appear.”

“If you had come when I called,” Roy said, “she might not
have been cut. I realized we needed to remove ourselves from the house for her
safety.”

Fuck
, Steven thought.
I was only trying to answer her questions, give her
some kind of comfort as we were running out the door, abandoning her. Instead I
almost killed her.

“This is beyond me,” Roy said. “It’s demonic on a level I
have no experience with.”

“Demonic?” Steven asked, driving through the streets of
Beacon Hill. “I thought you didn’t believe in evil.”

“I told you I believe there are things that are the opposite
of good,” he said. “And I meant it. There are. Whatever this is, it’s not a
ghost, and it’s not human. So that leaves it in the third category you
mentioned.”

“We can’t leave her like this,” Steven said. “We told her
we’d help her.”

“We won’t be helping her by getting her throat slit,” Roy
said. “I can tell you right now, we’re outgunned on this one.”

“I jumped in the River,” Steven said, “as you were starting
your trance. I smelled something so bad I had to jump back out.”

“It’s demonic,” Roy said. “I’ll have to call Dixon, see if he
knows someone who can help us.”

“What,” Steven said, “like a priest?”

“I doubt it,” Roy said. “I don’t think a priest would know
what to do with this thing. Probably just get her killed.”

“What about June?” Steven said. “We can’t just leave her
hanging. We need to know she’s alright.”

“You can call her,” Roy said. “Tell her we’re reconsidering
if we can help or not. I don’t want her even thinking we’ll be back. It’s too
dangerous for her. And don’t tell her that, either. No sense in worrying the
poor woman even more.”

“She’ll be worried that we’re not going to help her,” Steven
said. “Either way, she’ll worry.”

“Until we know what we’re dealing with,” Roy said, “I’d
rather have her thinking we’re out of the picture. I’m serious about this, son.
I know you want to calm her nerves, but if she starts thinking or saying we’re
still going to help, it might get her killed.”

“OK,” Steven said. “I’ll be careful.”

“Jesus Christ, what have we gotten ourselves into?” Roy said,
leaning back in his seat and taking a long exhale. He turned to look out the
window as the houses went by.

 


 

Steven jumped off the boat and helped guide Dixon into the
slip. He and Roy had gone to see Dixon at his boat in Ballard, and Dixon had
suggested they visit someone who lived in Gig Harbor. Then Dixon had insisted
on taking them across the sound to meet the person he’d recommended.

“She’s up that hill, house at the top,” Dixon said as Roy
stepped off the boat. He handed Roy a card. “Here’s her name and address,”
Dixon said. “Be nice to her, ‘cause you need her help. But don’t let her bully
you.”

Bully you?
Steven thought. With Roy, it was usually the other way
around.

“You’ll wait here for us?” Roy asked Dixon.

“I’ll be here,” he said, knocking out his pipe and refilling
it. “Just don’t take all day.”

“Alright,” Roy said, joining Steven and beginning the march
up the hill from the marina. They passed several marine shops, which turned to
tourist gift shops after another block.

“Always liked this place,” Steven said. “Very picturesque.”

“Full of snobs,” Roy said. “Worse than Mercer Island.” Steven
knew better than to argue with him. Arguing over these types of things with Roy
never ended well.

They walked in silence up the hill as the gift shops gave way
to homes. As they reached the top, they began checking house numbers.

“1057,” Steven said. “It’s the next one.”

They both glanced up at the next house, an old three story
gothic mansion from the late 19
th
century. It looked right out of a
horror movie, except it was well cared for and was surrounded by flowers. They
walked up to the front door and pressed the doorbell. Above the doorbell was a
tiny sign that read: “No solicitors or missionaries.”

A tall, thin woman in her mid-thirties opened the door. She
was dressed in a classic maid uniform, something Steven hadn’t seen outside of
television. She invited them in.

“We’re here to see Mrs. Judith Duke,” Roy said. “I think
she’s expecting us.”

“Please follow me,” the maid said, escorting them into a
small room just inside the entryway. There were several chairs and sofas in the
room, and several cases of books on the walls. “Would you wait here while I
inform Mrs. Duke that you’ve arrived?”

“Of course,” Roy said. The maid pulled the door closed behind
them.

“Fancy place,” Steven said, looking at a marble bust on a
shelf.

“I wonder if she earned it,” Roy said, “or if she inherited
it. Dixon said she’s the best he knows on the subject. Maybe you should let me
do the talking?”

“When do I not?” Steven asked, continuing to admire the
objects in the room.

The door opened again, and the maid said, “Mrs. Duke is ready
to see you. Would you both please follow me?”

They followed the maid as she led them upstairs to a room on
the second floor. “Mrs. Duke is a little incapacitated today, and doesn’t have
the strength for the stairs, so she’ll be seeing you in the upstairs sitting
room. If you wouldn’t mind limiting your visit so as to not tire her
excessively.”

“Of course,” Roy said.

“Mr. Roy Hall and Mr. Steven Hall,” the maid said as they
entered the dark sitting room. At the far end was Mrs. Judith Duke, reclining
on a daybed. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a state of perfection.
Her skin was dark and wrinkled, the result of years of sun exposure, and the
lower half of her body was under a blanket. From her daybed, she had a view out
a large window that overlooked the front yard.

“I saw you come up from my nest here,” she said, pointing to
the window. “Forgive me for not getting up, but these old bones can’t manage it
today.”

Roy and Steven approached the daybed and shook her hand,
which was frail and delicate. Steven could feel each bone in her hand as he
touched her. “Nice to meet you,” he said as he released her hand.

“Likewise,” she said, glancing up at him for a moment, and
then returning her eyes to the window. “You came in Dixon’s boat. I watched you
arrive.”

“We did indeed,” said Roy. “We left from Ballard.”

“Dixon is a wonderful man,” she said, letting her head tilt
slightly to one side as she said it. Given what Steven knew about Dixon’s
reputation for exploits, he wondered if Judith Duke was one of the many ladies
he’d romanced over the years.

“I don’t normally see people these days,” she said, “but if
Dixon says I need to see you both, then I don’t doubt there’s a good reason.”

“We’ve encountered something troubling,” Roy said, “and we
need the advice of someone who has expertise. I’ve encountered something like
it before, but this is different.”

“Ah,” she said. “That old game. There are many people out
there who consider me an expert on many things — it’s true. But if you don’t
come to the point, you might exhaust me before I can do anything to help you.”

Roy seemed a little taken back, so Steven jumped in. “There
is a woman we were trying to help, in Seattle,” Steven said. “There was
something threatening her, upset at our presence in her home. We were only
trying to figure out if her home was haunted, but whatever it was threatened to
kill her if we remained there. My father felt it was out of our depth.”

“Really?” She asked, turning her head from the window to face
them. “How do you know that?”

“He felt it was demonic,” Steven said. “And I felt something
evil when I was there. Neither of us know much about that side of things.”

“Roy, would you bring me that glass cruet on the table over
there?” she said, waving to the opposite wall. “And three glasses?”

Roy retrieved the items, and placed them on the table next to
the daybed, where Judith began to pour, filling each glass.

“None for me, thank you,” Steven said.

“It’s not spirits, my dear, if that’s what you’re thinking,”
Judith said, replacing the stopper on the cruet and handing a glass to Roy.
“It’s something we’re going to need if we’re to keep discussing this.” Roy took
the glass from her hand, and she passed another glass to Steven. Once they all
had a glass, she raised hers with a small salute, and they all shot the drink.
Steven and Roy placed their empty glasses on the table next to the cruet.

“I’m guessing that was some kind of protection?” Roy said.

“Incredibly astute,” she said with a tone that made it hard
to detect if it was sarcasm. “I’m looking forward to your next observation.”

Steven stepped in again, afraid Roy might take things off
rails. “I’ve taken protection before,” Steven said, “but only just before
something dangerous was about to happen. I hope nothing dangerous is imminent.”

“It is,” Judith said, motioning for them to sit in nearby
chairs, “if we are going to discuss whatever you felt in your client’s house. You’ve
come to me for my experience, and this is the first bit of it I’ll share with
you: half the battle with these things is not opening yourself up to them. Talking
about them can, in some cases, invite them in. Once they’re in, they can be very
difficult to get rid of. I find it’s a lot simpler to protect one’s self so
they don’t get in in the first place, then you don’t have to worry about
getting them out. What we just imbibed will allow us to discuss your situation
without fear we’ll be overheard, or what we say mistaken as an invitation. Do
you understand what I’m talking about?”

“I think so,” Steven said.

“You know how the religious and superstitious always warn
children not to play with Ouija boards?” she asked him. Steven nodded, and she
continued. “Just playing with them invites something in, they say. Well, it’s
true. Of course, there has to be something the invited want. They don’t come in
without a purpose. But there are so many things they want. So just talking
about them – even thinking about them – can bring them in. You open up that
part of your mind they’re not supposed to see – it’s like a lighthouse, shining
through the fog, showing them where to go.”

“What we just drank will keep the lighthouse turned off?”
Steven asked.

“You’re as bright as your father,” she said, closing her
eyes, looking slightly bored.

“Clara!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, and began
ringing a bell that was on the table by her daybed. “Clara!”

The door to the room creaked open and the maid appeared.
“Yes, Mrs. Duke?”

“Please bring some tea,” Judith said. “And some of those
little sandwiches.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Clara said, exiting the room and closing the
door behind her.

“You must try them,” Judith said, suddenly perking up. “I
realize it’s not dinner time yet, but the bread comes from a bakery in Tacoma
and is sliced incredibly thin. The English cucumbers are grown year-round in an
organic hothouse up in Silverdale. If you haven’t had these particular
cucumbers, you haven’t lived. They excite the tongue in absolutely incredible
ways. Now. About your problem. Tell me exactly what you saw, heard, smelled,
and felt. Leave nothing out. Begin.”

Roy seemed resigned to let Steven respond to her.
He’s
probably a little put off by her,
Steven thought. Steven began relating
their experiences with June. He let Roy tell what the trance had been like.

“How did you come across this book you were returning to
them?” she asked.

“We found it along with some objects when working on another
case,” Roy said. Both he and Steven had agreed to keep Eximere secret for now,
until they had returned more of the books, so he didn’t share any more about it.
“Once we determined who it belonged to, we tracked down their children until we
found June.”

“You’re only telling me half the story,” Judith said, “but
you have some reason for not telling me all of it that you think is significant.
Fine, I don’t want to know. It doesn’t really bear on the situation, anyway. I
was asking for my own amusement. But you must be honest with me about things
that matter.”

“Do you have any idea what we’re dealing with?” Steven asked.

“No,” Judith said. “It could be one of a thousand things or
beings. And so asking me what to do about it would be premature and wildly
unfruitful, even though it’s what you really want to know.”

“Any way to whittle it down?” Steven asked. “Figure out what or
who we’re dealing with?”

“How intuitive!” Judith said to Roy. “Your son seems to know
the next step, as though he’s done this before. Clara will be entering the room
in a moment, and we’ll all stop discussing this while she’s here.”

On cue, the door opened and Clara came in with a tray, loaded
with tea and sandwiches. The sandwiches were impossibly small.

“Here now, you must try one of these,” Judith said, picking
one up with a small pair of tongs, and passing the bread and cucumber over to
Steven. He opened his hand and accepted the offering, which she placed in the
exact center of his palm. Steven looked at it – it was no more than half an
inch square.

“Aren’t they delightful,” she said, passing one to Roy, who
opened his palm as well. “Thank you, Clara, that will be all.”

After the door had closed, Judith began pouring tea for both
of them. Steven really didn’t want any, but he knew better than to refuse her.

“The next step will involve a token,” she said, passing a cup
to Steven. “The token will keep whatever is in the house busy with something
else whenever you’re there, so you’ll be able to talk to this woman without
fear of her being hurt because of your presence. You’ll send the token to her in
a package with a note, explaining that she must keep the token pressed between
her palms, like this – ” Judith demonstrated by holding her hands together,
palms pressed tight – “whenever you are there working with her in the house.
That is how she’ll stay safe, and it’ll allow you to keep researching. You won’t
be able to go back until she’s received it and is ready to use it. For god’s
sake don’t deliver it yourself. Mail it, or have UPS deliver it, something like
that. Instruct her to call you when she’s received it and understands how to
use it.”

“Alright,” Steven said. “What is the token?”

“We’re going to make one,” she said, “specially for this
situation. Roy, there’s a drawer in the bureau over there. Inside is a small
tin that has several coins in it, would you bring it over to me?”

Roy rose, set down his tea, and walked over to the bureau,
rummaging through the drawer she mentioned. He returned with a small mint tin,
which he gave to her.

“Thank you,” she said, opening the tin and removing a 50 peso
coin. “I had these consecrated years ago. You have to use something that is
small, so it can be held easily. I used to use American quarters, but I found
people kept accidentally mixing them in with their normal change, so I switched
to foreign coins. They’re still the right size, but they stand out and don’t get
lost. You see, more of my experience for you to benefit from!” She smiled
weakly at Steven, handing the coin to him. “Place it in your palm, and jump
into the flow, please,” she said.