Dark Needs at Night's Edge

Chapter 14

Nikolai had used their services - it made sense that their number would still be in his phone! In a flash, she traced back to her studio and raised the phone in front of her face.

When the rain outside faded and the night cleared to match her change in mood, she reminded herself, Don't get too excited. Even if she could divine how to operate the phone, the telekinesis to work it would be complicated and tiring.

Surely I can figure it out! In nineteen twenty-seven, telephoning had been difficult - today, it wasn't. Besides, a cell phone wasn't a totally alien object to her. She'd seen the brothers using theirs, pressing buttons without even glancing at them. And she'd read the reviews in the paper for all the newest products, learning about their features.

She squinted at the screen. Yes, she knew enough to recognize a battery graphic.

This one's was an angry red.

Merde! No, no, don't lose power. Not yet! Manipulating small touches to dial wasn't easy, much less while being panicked. Brows drawn in concentration, she painstakingly "scrolled" until she reached the address book. Within it were business cards that looked like actual paper cards that had somehow been copied into the phone. Searching under W, she found:

The House of Witches

Est. 937

1st Class Curses, Hexes, Spells, and Potions

We Won't Be Undersold!

ph: (504) WIT-CHES

[email protected]

Member LBBB

Swallowing, she selected the card and pressed the green "call" button.

Mon Dieu, we're ringing! The phone made an ominous beep. Hold on, battery.

Two rings. Was no one there? Ringing, ringing. It was long after five o'clock. Businesses probably closed even in the Lore.

The red battery picture had begun flashing. Just as she was about to hang up to save the power, a woman answered in a creepy tone, "Hellooooo, Clarice."

N¨Ļomi's jaw dropped. This worked? I made a call? Who's Clarice?

In the background, it sounded as if a dozen females were singing, drunkenly howling the high notes of some song. First they'd mumble, "Duh, duh, dun, duh, duh... " then they'd yell, "Ever-last-in' love!"

"Hello? Hello? Is this a crank call?" the woman said, sounding normal now." 'Cause let me tell you, you dialed the wrong coven. I can convince your dialing finger to make its legal residence where the sun don't shine. Got me?"

Throwing caution to the wind, N¨Ļomi silently begged, Please be able to hear me! then said, "This isn't Clarice. Can I speak with Miss Mariketa? My name is - "

The witch held the phone away and called out, "Hey, does anybody here speak Voice from Beyond?"

N¨Ļomi's eyes went wide. My God, I love the Lore!

Back on the phone, the witch cried, "I'm kidding! I'm Mari. Hey, how do you spirits keep getting on the cell lines? It's because you're all electrically and everything, right?"

N¨Ļomi could barely move her lips. "I, um, electrically?" she repeated dumbly.

"I keep telling everyone our conversations are not private. Hold up, I've gotta do this." She held the phone away again. "Hey, Regin! Firstly, stop peeking at my frigging cards. Secondly, get your own cigars. And C, check this - I've got a ghost on the line, and she's coming over the phone wire to see us right now."

"Ahhhhhhhhhhh!" a woman screamed. N¨Ļomi heard running footsteps, then a slammed door.

Mariketa chuckled. "Reege isn't scared of basilisks or twenty-foot-long centipedes, but ghosts make her freak balls. We just made one of the most fearsome Valkyrie on earth run for her life. Classic."

The music grew louder as a manic-tempo song played - the only lyric was the word tequila.

Sweet pandemonium. N¨Ļomi wanted to be there so badly it hurt. The phone beeped again.

"So what's your name, spirit?"

"N-N¨Ļomi. N¨Ļomi Laress."

"Oh, man! I've heard of you! Dancer, right? From the old-timey days? You refused to get hitched and got shanked in the ticker. We studied you in my Local Feminists 205 class."

People actually study me?

In a chiding tone, she added, "Which, N¨Ļomi, I might have passed if you'd called two years ago. So what do you want with me?"

This is so bizarre! "I need, um, I would be very grateful to be corporeal, and thought you might be able to help me."

"Do you have any money?" Mariketa asked, her tone instantly turning shrewd. "I don't do gratis."

"I have a drawer full of antique jewelry." The phone was beeping more insistently!

"Meh. It's my one girls' night out for the week, and I'm kicking ass at five card st - "

"There are more than fifty diamonds! One alone is four carats. You can have all of them."

"We're getting warmer, spirit."

Beeeeeep. "In the safe there are stock certificates from before I... died. They were worth twenty or thirty thousand dollars eighty years ago. They'd have to be worth a fortune today, since the companies are still in business."

"Which companies?" This Mariketa was certainly no-nonsense when it came to money.

"Um, there's General Electric and International Business Machines. I think it's called just IBM today - "

"Okay, I have cartoon dollar signs in my bulging cartoon eyes. I'll be right over. Knock on the mirror closest to you while I'm on the phone."

Did Mariketa need the mirrors for her spells? N¨Ļomi's heart fell. "But they're all broken."

"Doesn't matter. Just need a sliver." N¨Ļomi dutifully knocked, and Mariketa said, "And I've... got it. All right, when a witch of superlative gorgeousableness climbs out of your mirror, don't ghost out on me."

Climbs out of my mirror? "Oh, I assure you - "

The phone was now emitting a long, unbroken tone!

"Please hurry, Miss Mariketa!"

"Hey, just call me Mari." In a feigned somber tone, she sighed, "And I shall call you... Spirit Friend."

Smiling stupidly, N¨Ļomi turned off the phone and tossed it to the bed. She was giddy - she was... hopeful.

She began to pace anticipating Mariketa's - Mari's arrival. With their singing, music, and cards, those females were like the bons vivants she'd adored. And one was coming to visit!

Life was suddenly new and different and full of promise.

It couldn't be this easy. But, what if, what if, what if?

25

Conrad sat hunched in a tree atop a hill, overlooking the chaos of the gathering. He scanned the crowd for Tarut, but so far had spied nothing. Even in this throng, the demon would be easy to spot. He was eight feet tall.

Though the risk in being here was great, Conrad was prepared. His hand was nearly regenerated. The drugs had all but worn off. And he was holding strong mentally.

Bullshit.

He was addicted to N¨Ļomi. I'm addicted to a ghost. Conrad couldn't feel her presence, couldn't smell her scent. And it was killing him.

Behind his sunglasses, his eyes darted. Only his own survival mattered, he told himself again and again. She didn't matter to him. Damn it, she doesn't!

Yet over the last three days, as his anger abated, he'd come to realize that she hadn't withheld his freedom for malicious, or even selfish, purposes. Her expression had been tormented when she'd handed the key to him. As long as he lived, he'd never forget how she'd looked in the rain, the glitter of electricity all around her lovely face.

With each hour, he remembered more of his enraged tirade. He'd accused her of keeping him in danger from his enemies. Yet she'd been watching over him like a sentinel whenever he'd slept. If anyone had attacked Conrad at Elancourt, he didn't doubt she'd have put them on the ceiling.

And he'd questioned whether she would've let him starve when the blood supply ran out, demanding to know if she gave a damn about that at all - when in fact, it was N¨Ļomi who'd coaxed him to start drinking the bagged blood anyway. Every sunset she'd brought him a cup filled to the rim, though she detested the sight of it. "I just can't see it without remembering," she'd said. "When I died, I was bathed in it, in Louis's... ."

Conrad had known that - he'd seen it spilling out over her floor the night of her dance. Exasperated, he'd said, "Then why do you keep bringing it?"

She'd blinked at him. "Because you need it."

Why would N¨Ļomi let a self-professed murderer loose? She'd been tortured by one.

Go back for her, his mind whispered. And do what with her? He'd never soothed the hurt feelings of a female. He wasn't smooth with words like Murdoch.

Why would she want to have anything to do with him after the things he'd said? He'd been so damned hard on her. He remembered telling her to rot in hell - she'd whispered that she already was.

He grasped his forehead. What is wrong with me?

She'd endured eighty years of that hell, only to have a vampire destroying her home, punching her walls. And even before those years, N¨Ļomi had suffered. The bastard who killed her had made sure of it. Robicheaux hadn't plunged the knife and then looked on in horror at what he'd done. He'd taken hold of that blade and sadistically twisted it.

And Conrad couldn't even torture and slaughter the one who had done this to her.

His eyes widened. But he could desecrate the bastard's grave for her! Now I'm thinking. And of course N¨Ļomi would want to know about Conrad's gesture because it would please her. He would have to return, if just to tell her.

The idea heartened him, made being here a fraction more bearable.

When her mirror bulged out, somehow becoming pliable, N¨Ļomi gasped. A briefcase flew out of the glass, landing with a thud on her studio floor.

Then came hands, parting the mirror like a curtain.

From the opening, a comely redhead crawled out, her face alight with a smile. Following her was an eerily pretty black-haired woman with arresting golden eyes - and pointed ears. The glass closed seamlessly behind them.

"I'm Mari MacRieve," the redhead said. She hiked a thumb at her friend. "This is Nïx the Ever-Knowing. She's a Valkyrie."

Shaking off her astonishment, N¨Ļomi said, "It's such a pleasure to meet both of you." Turning to the black-haired woman, she said, "Nïx? I know some people who are searching for you."

"They always are, dearling," Nïx sighed, then fogged and buffed her nails, which looked more like small, elegant claws. She asked Mari, "How are you doing with all these mirrors?"

Mari let out a breath. "Hanging in there."

"She's a captromancer," Nïx explained. "She uses mirrors for her spells and for travel."

"But," Mari said, "I've got this foreign greedy power inside me that makes me get all entranced in mirrors if I'm not careful. So I can't live with 'em, can't live without them." Mari turned in circles. "Wow, what a place!"

N¨Ļomi noticed that she had a piece of paper taped on her back that read, I Do Ghouls.

"Oh, dear," N¨Ļomi said, pointing delicately. "Mari, you have a... "

Mari patted behind her until she snagged the page. "Damn Regin." After reading it, she crumbled the paper, then glared at Nïx. "When is Lucia getting back? I can't handle Reege by myself anymore."

Nïx shrugged. "Don't worry, I've got Regin taken care of. Folly, a rogue Valkyrie and Regin's archnemesis, arrives next Friday at a quarter after four."

Mari exhaled with relief. "Ah, your foresight is a beautiful thing. I wish mine was a fraction as strong as yours."

"No foresight needed. I bought Folly a ticket. I'm flying her in from New Zealand first-class. Regin will be furious at the betrayal - but sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."

"You are wise," Mari said, then returned her attention to a bemused N¨Ļomi.

"How is it that you both can see ghosts?" N¨Ļomi asked.

Mari answered, "Because I'm a witch, and because she's damn old and powerful."

"Old as carbon," Nïx agreed. "And so powerful I'm working on my demigoddess badges."

N¨Ļomi didn't think Nïx looked a day older than Mari, but what did she know? "Can either of you tell me how I became a ghost?"

Mari shook her head. "No one really knows for certain, but I've heard it has to do with a soul being too strong, even after death, to pass on. Oh, and usually you have to have a sturdy spirit anchor."

"Spirit anchor?"

"Yeah, if you die in a place that you loved or that had meaning for you, it can anchor your spirit there."

N¨Ļomi had loved Elancourt - the property had been all she'd had that was permanent and lasting. She'd wanted to plant roots, to watch children play in the gardens and the folly. To grow old here with someone she loved.

Why did Conrad's face flash in her mind when she imagined that?

"So what do you do for fun around here?" Mari asked.

"Fun? Um, I read the newspaper. And... oh, sometimes cats move in! And there's this family of nutria that come in the winter to root around inside the house. Their antics are so funny, I could watch them for hours." She frowned. "Actually, I do watch them for hours."

Mari cast Nïx a speaking glance. "Bones, we got here just in time!"

"Clearly, Jim," Nïx replied in a bored tone.

Bones? Jim? "So you'd heard of me?" N¨Ļomi asked.

"Yeah, I'd thought about doing my class report on you."

Striving for a casual tone, N¨Ļomi said, "But you didn't?"

"An older witch had already written a paper on a suffragist from Baton Rouge. I wasn't above using it. But I remember you were a burlesque dancer turned ballerina."

"Burlesque? That got out? But people never understand," N¨Ļomi said, wondering what these women would think of her - Conrad had been appalled. What if they wouldn't take her seriously about what she was seeking? "I only did that for three months. Four possibly. A year at the most. I was never entirely naked," she added. "Not many times at all. Back then it was called a striptease. Not a strip, you understand. There were usually fans or big feathers - "

"But that's one thing people loved about you," Mari said. "These days burlesque is way cool. After your secret got out, people called you the ballerina with burlesque soul. You fit New Orleans."

"Oh, then," N¨Ļomi said on a breath. At last, people were seeing it as they should. "I'm actually mollified."

"Great. So, let's get down to business."

"Would you like to have a seat?" Having her own guests here was so surreal!

With a nod, Mari kicked her briefcase past the coffee table to the cot, then sat. Nïx hopped atop the display table to the dust-free spot where the gramophone had been. She surveyed N¨Ļomi's collection of condoms, bras, and Mardi Gras paraphernalia, but said nothing.

"I'd offer you coffee - "

"I don't ingest food or drink," Nïx said evenly.

Mari added, "And coffee on top of margaritas is courting the wrath of Cuervo." She took out a pen and a pad of paper. "So, N¨Ļomi, first some background just for my own records... . Why contact me now? I mean, you've been a ghost for decades."

"Well, I didn't even know about the Lore until the vampires moved in a couple weeks ago. I'd had no idea there were witches or Valkyrie - "

"Vampires moved in?" Mari interrupted, flashing a look at Nïx. "Funny. I just saw a foreign vamp at a bayou bar recently. What a coincidence."

Nïx mouthed, "Who? Whaa?"

"Yes, they're from Estonia," N¨Ļomi said, and soon the entire story flowed. "... and then Conrad cut off his hand and called me a pathetic ghost, and I realized I was, and I couldn't stand it. So that's when I rang you up."

"You're not seeking to be embodied because of the vampire, are you?" Mari asked. "To show him what he's missing? Because this is really serious."

Even if N¨Ļomi never saw Conrad again, she had to take action of some kind. Because I can't stand what I've become. "I'm seeking this, because it's time."

"Okay, I'm just going to lay all this out for you." Mari set down her pen. "I can help you with your incorporeality problem, but it's a temporary fix, and it comes with a high price. Not just the monetary type. It's basically a shell spell that creates a target practice body. The spell will make you look and feel precisely like the human you once were, but you'll, well, you'll get killed soon after."

"Why is that?"

"Some folks call what we're discussing a hail Mary mortality play. You could set about righting old wrongs, using knowledge of the afterlife to screw with the present. Fate doesn't like these bids and shuts them down forcefully," Mari explained. "It'd be like you were walking around with a glaring target on your back. You'd get capped by some unnatural cause - a runaway trolley car or a plane crash or you'd be electrocuted by your hair dryer. Something pretty horrific would happen. Your shell body would expire, then disappear, and then your spirit would die, die."

"How long would I have?"

"A couple of weeks? A night? Maybe a few months. There's no way to tell. But the most I've ever read of in the Web forum was a year."

N¨Ļomi swallowed. "What happens after death, death?"

"That's the kicker. Nobody knows - it's kinda between you and your God, gods, goddesses, et cetera."

"Well, now that we're in discussions," N¨Ļomi began, "I have to ask - is there any way to make me corporeal for a lifetime? Maybe I have enough money for a full resurrection?"

Mari and Nïx shared a look. "I don't touch those. But what you're asking for isn't a resurrection. Your spirit's here and available. No need to suck it back to this plane. What you need is an embodying, which is highly dangerous in itself. And there are about a dozen different conditions that would have to be met. But even if everything were ideal, I'm just not skilled enough to try it. Not yet."

"You've never attempted it?"

"On a human? Not outside a simulator." After a hesitation, she admitted, "I did recently attempt it on my ghost cat."

"And?"

"And, did you ever see Pet Sematary?"

N¨Ļomi shook her head.

"No? Well, my Tigger came back wrong!" she cried, biting her knuckle.

Nïx rose to sit beside Mari, patting her back. "There, there, favorite Wiccan-type person."

Mari dabbed at her eyes, muttering, "Got some, uh, dust in my eye."

To N¨Ļomi, the Valkyrie said, "Mari's got oodles of power, but this would be a skill level of" - she frowned - "what level?"

"A fiver," Mari answered, regaining her composure. "Out of five."

"Why not practice on me?" N¨Ļomi said, making her tone bright. "I'm game."

Nïx shook her head. "For Mari to do a five, she'd have to commune with the mirror to unleash her full power. It's likely she would get entranced in her own reflection, unable to break away from it. Possibly forever."

Mari nodded. "But I'm going to face my reflection in fifty years, when I'm stronger and more skilled. We've already got it marked on the calendar. If you can wait that long, I'll put you at the top of the list, for a nominal, onetime fee - "

"No. Merci, but no." Fifty more years of loneliness and sliver moons? Her death relived another six hundred times?

Or possibly a year of life. There wasn't even a question of which she'd choose.

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