Authors: M. L. N. Hanover
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by M. L. N. Hanover
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hanover, M. L. N.
Unclean spirits / M. L. N Hanover. - 1st Pocket Books trade paperback ed.
p. cm. - (The Black Sun’s Daughter v. 1)
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To John Constantine
“Something’s happening,” the voice from his cell phone said. “Something big.”
“I know, Aubrey. I’m on it.”
“I mean really big.”
Across from Eric in the dim orange light of the bar, a man laughed and the waitress smiled a tight little smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Eric tapped his glass, the tick-tick-tick of his fingernails sounding like the rain against the window.
“Okay,” Aubrey said. “But if there’s something I can do, you’ll tell me. Right?”
“No question,” Eric said. “Take care of yourself, okay? And maybe fly low for a while. This might get a little messy.”
Aubrey was a decent guy, which meant he did a lot of decent-guy things. Eric’s present job didn’t call for that skill set. He needed a hard-ass. And so he was sitting in this bar in one of the worst parts of Five Points, waiting for someone he’d never met while a monsoon beat the shit out of the city. And while Coin and the Invisible College did something in the dangerous almost-reality of the Pleroma. Something big.
“You want another one, Pops?” the waitress said.
“Yes,” Eric said. “Yes, I do.”
He’d finished the other one and moved on to a third when the door swung open. The curl of rain-chilled air moved through the bar like a breath. Then five men walked in. Four of them could have been simple violence-soaked
gangbangers. The fifth one, the big sonofabitch in sunglasses, had a rider. Eric couldn’t tell by looking whether it was a
or any of the other thousand species of unclean spirit that could crawl into a human body, but he could feel power coming off the man. Eric’s hand twitched toward the gun in his pocket, wanting the reassuringly solid grip under his fingers. But that would be poor form.
The big sonofabitch approached and loomed over Eric, just close enough to be a provocation. The other four split up, two standing by the door, two lounging close to Eric with a fake casual air. Apart from the radio blaring out a hip-hop tune, the bar had gone silent.
“You’re Tusk,” Eric said. “Nice belt buckle you’ve got there. Shiny.”
“Who the fuck are you, old man?” the big sonofabitch asked. His breath smelled like creosote.
then. A werewolf.
“My name’s Eric Heller. I’m looking for someone to do a job for me.”
“We look unemployed?” the big sonofabitch asked. The two who weren’t by the door smiled mirthlessly. “You think some Anglo motherfucker just come in here and whistle, we gonna jump?”
Eric reached up and plucked the sunglasses off the big sonofabitch. The black eyes met his. Eric pulled his will up from his crotch, up through his belly and his throat,
pressing cold qi out through his gaze. The big sonofabitch tilted his head like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound. The others stirred, hands reaching under jackets and shirts.
“I’m looking for someone to do a job, friend,” Eric said, pressing the glasses into the man’s blacksmith-thick hand. “If it’s not you, it’s not you. No offense meant.”
The big sonofabitch shook his head once, but it wasn’t really a refusal. Eric waited.
“Who are you?” the
asked. The humanity had left the voice. Eric was talking straight to the rider now.
“Eric. Alexander. Heller. Ask around,” he said. “I can offer you the Mark of Brute-Loka. Might be useful to someone in your position.”
The black eyes went wider.
“What do you want for it? You want someone killed?”
“I want someone killed,” Eric agreed softly. Everyone was quiet. Quiet as the grave. “You want to talk about it here with all these nice people around? Or should we go someplace private?”
“Chango,” the big sonofabitch said. One of the men by the door stepped forward, lifting his chin. “Get the car.”
Eric swilled down the last of his drink, and the big son-of-abitch stepped back enough to let him stand. Eric dropped two twenties on the table. A very generous tip. It always paid to be kind to the help.
Outside, the rain had slackened to merely driving. A black car pulled up to the curb, Chango at the wheel. The
and his three homies clustered around Eric, ignoring the downpour. Two of the three minions got in the back with Eric stuck between them. The
had a short conversation with the last guy, then took the front. The last gangbanger spat on the street and went back into the bar as the car pulled away. They drove east toward Park Hill. Eric didn’t speak.
For the first time that night, Eric felt that the plan was coming together. The muscle was the last piece he needed. The trick now was to fix the timing. The whole thing had to come together like clockwork, every element in place just when it needed to be there. Him, and the
and the old-timer.
The driver sneezed. The thug to Eric’s left murmured “Gesundheit,” and Eric’s spine crawled with fear. Since when did Five Points gangbangers say
What the fuck was he sitting next to?
As casually as he could, he brought a hand to his mouth. He crushed the fresh sage and peppermint leaves in the cuff and breathed in the scent. His mind clicked into trance, the aroma acting as trigger. His eyes felt like they’d been washed clean. Everything around him was intensely real, the edges sharp, the textures vibrant. He could hear the individual raindrops striking the car. He felt each fiber of his shirt pressing against his skin. And the glamour fell away from the others. The ink of their markings seemed to well up from inside them like blood from a cut. The driver was
entirely bald, labyrinthine tattoos rising from his collar and crawling up over his ears. The two beside Eric were just as marked, their faces covered with symbols and sigils.
It had been a setup from the start. The contact, the facedown at the bar, the creosote breath. There were no gangbangers. No
One of them glanced at Eric.
“He knows,” the guard said.
The big sonofabitch in the front was still a big sonofabitch. He turned, looking over his shoulder. His lips were black, his eyes set in a tangle of something half Arabic script, half spiderweb.
“Mr. Heller,” he said, as if they were meeting for the first time. His voice was low as tires against asphalt. With his senses scraped raw by the cantrip, Eric could feel the man’s breath on his skin.
“This isn’t what you boys think it is,” Eric said.
“We know what you’ve been doing, Mr. Heller,” the other man said. “It stops tonight. It stops
With a despairing cry, Eric went for his gun.
It took me a while to find him at the back of the crowd, his head shifting from side to side, looking for me. He had a legal pad in his hand with my name in handwritten letters—“J
.” He was younger than I’d expected, maybe midthirties, and cuter. I shouldered my way through the happy mass of people, mentally applauding Uncle Eric’s taste.
“You’d be Aubrey?” I said.
“Jayné,” he said, pronouncing it
. It’s actually zha-
, but that was a fight I’d given up. “Good. Great. I’m glad to meet you. Can I help you with your bags?”
“Pretty much covered on that one,” I said. “Thanks, though.”
He looked surprised, then shrugged it off.
“Right. I’m parked over on the first level. Let me at least get that one for you.”
I surrendered my three changes of clothes and followed.
“You’re going to be staying at Eric’s place?” Aubrey asked over his shoulder. “I have the keys. The lawyer said it would be okay to give them to you.”
“Keys to the kingdom,” I said, then, “Yes. I thought I’d save the money on a hotel. Doesn’t make sense not to, right?”
“Right,” Aubrey said with a smile that wanted badly to be comfortable but wasn’t.
I couldn’t blame the guy for being nervous. Christ only knew what Eric had told him about the family. Even the broad stroke of “My brother and sister-in-law don’t talk to me” would have been enough to make the guy tentative. Much less the full-on gay-hating, patriarch-in-the-house, know-your-place episode of
that had been my childhood. Calling Uncle Eric the black sheep of the family was like saying the surface of the sun was warmish. Or that I’d been a little tiny disappointment to them.
Aubrey drove a minivan, which was kind of cute. After he slung my lonely little bag into the back, we climbed in and drove out. The happy crowd of families and friends fell away behind us. I leaned against the window and looked up into the clear night sky. The moon was about halfway down from full. There weren’t many stars.
“So,” Aubrey said. “I’m sorry. About Eric. Were you two close?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Or…maybe. I don’t know. Not close like he called me up to tell me about his day. He’d check in on me, make sure things weren’t too weird at home. He’d just show up sometimes, take me out to lunch or for ice cream or something cheesy like that. We always had to keep under my dad’s radar, so I figure he’d have come by more often if he could.”
Aubrey gunned the minivan, pulling us onto the highway.
“He protected me,” I said, soft enough that I didn’t think Aubrey would hear me, but he did.
“Myself,” I said.
Here’s the story. In the middle of high school, I spent about six months hanging out with the bad kids. On my sixteenth birthday, I got very,
drunk and woke up two days later in a hotel room with half a tattoo on my back and wearing someone else’s clothes. Eric had been there for me. He told my dad that I’d gotten the flu and helped me figure out how to keep anyone from ever seeing the ink.
I realized I’d gone silent. Aubrey was looking over at me.
“Eric was always swooping in just when everything was about to get out of control,” I said. “Putting in the cooling rods.”
“Yeah,” Aubrey said. “That sounds like him.”
Aubrey smiled at the highway. It seemed he wasn’t thinking about it, so the smile looked real. I could see why Eric would have gone for him. Short, curly hair the color of honey. Broad shoulders. What my mother would have called a kind mouth. I hoped that he’d made Eric happy.
“I just want you to know,” I said, “it’s okay with me that he was gay.”
“He was gay?”
“Um,” I said. “He wasn’t?”
“He never told me.”
“Oh,” I said, mentally recalculating. “Maybe he wasn’t. I assumed…I mean, I just thought since my dad wouldn’t talk about him…my dad’s kind of old-school. Where
. He never really got into that love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself part.”
“I know the type,” he said. The smile was actually pointed at me now, and it seemed genuine.
“There was this big falling-out about three years ago,” I said. “Uncle Eric had called the house, which he almost never did. Dad went out around dinnertime and came back looking deeply pissed off. After that…things were weird. I just assumed…”
I didn’t tell Aubrey that Dad had gathered us all in the living room—me, Mom, my older brother Jay, and Curtis the young one—and said that we weren’t to have anything to do with Uncle Eric anymore. Not any of us. Not ever. He was a pervert and an abomination before God.
Mom had gone sheet-white. The boys just nodded and looked grave. I’d wanted to stand up for him, to say that Uncle Eric was family, and that Dad was being totally unfair and hypocritical. I didn’t, though. It wasn’t a fight I could win.
But Aubrey knew him well enough to have a set of spare keys, and he didn’t think Eric was gay. Maybe Dad had
meant something else. I tried to think what exactly had made me think it was that, but I couldn’t come up with anything solid.
Aubrey pulled his minivan off the highway, then through a maze of twisty little streets. One-story bungalows with neatly kept yards snuggled up against each other. About half the picture windows had open curtains; it was like driving past museum dioramas of the American Family. Here was one with an old couple sitting under a cut glass chandelier. One with the backs of two sofa-bound heads and a wall-size Bruce Willis looking troubled and heroic. One with two early-teenage boys, twins to look at them, chasing each other. And then we made a quick dogleg and pulled into a carport beside a brick house. Same lawn, same architecture. No lights, no one in the windows.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching around in the seat to grab my bag.
“Do you want…I mean, I can show you around a little. If you want.”
“I think I’m just going to grab a shower and order in a pizza or something,” I said. “Decompress. You know.”
“Okay,” he said, fishing in his pocket. He came out with a leather fob with two keys and passed it over to me. I took it. The leather was soft and warm. “If you need anything, you have my number?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for the lift.”
“If there’s anything I can do…”
I popped open the door. The dome light came on.
“I’ll let you know,” I said. “Promise.”
“Your uncle,” Aubrey said. Then, “Your uncle was a very special man.”
“I know,” I said.
He seemed like he wanted to say something else, but instead he just made me promise again that I’d call him if I needed help.
There wasn’t much mail in the box—ads and a water bill. I tucked it under my arm while I struggled with the lock. When I finally got the door open, I stumbled in, my bag bumping behind me.
A dim atrium. A darker living room before me. The kitchen door to my left, ajar. A hall to my right, heading back to bedrooms and bathrooms and closets.
“Hey,” I said to nothing and no one. “I’m home.”
I didn’t have a job or a boyfriend. I had a storage unit in
Phoenix and a bag, and I didn’t have the money to keep the storage unit for more than another month. With any luck at all, I’d be able to stay here in the house until Uncle Eric’s estate was all squared away. There might even be enough money in his will that I could manage first and last on a place of my own. He was swooping in one last time to pull me out of the fire. The idea made me sad, and grateful, and a little bit ashamed.
They’d found him in an alley somewhere on the north side of the city. There was, the lawyer had told me, an open investigation. Apparently he’d been seen at a bar somewhere talking to someone. Or it might have just been a mugging that got out of hand. One way or another, his friend Aubrey had identified the body. Eric had left instructions in his will for funeral arrangements, already taken care of. It was all very neat. Very tidy.
The house was just as tidy. He hadn’t owned very much, and it gave the place a simplicity. The bed was neatly made. Shirts, jackets, slacks all hung in the bedroom closet, some still in the plastic from the dry cleaner’s. There were towels in the bathroom, a safety razor beside the sink with a little bit of soap scum and stubble still on the blade.
I found a closet with general household items, including a spare toothbrush. The food in the fridge was mostly spoiled, but I scrounged up a can of beef soup that I nuked in a plain black bowl, sopping up the last with bread that wasn’t too stale. The television was in the living room, and
I spooled through channels and channels of bright, shining crap. I didn’t feel right putting my feet on the couch.
When I turned on the laptop, I found there was a wireless network. I guessed the encryption key on my third try. It was the landline phone number. I checked mail and had nothing waiting for me. I pulled up my messenger program. A few names appeared, including my most recent ex-boyfriend. The worst thing I could have done just then was talk with him. The last thing I needed was another reminder of how alone I was. I started typing.
Hey. You there?
A few seconds later, the icon showed he was on the other end, typing.
I’m not really here. About to go out.
OK. Is there a time we can talk?
Maybe. Not now.
His name vanished from the list. I played a freeware word search game while I conducted imaginary conversations with him in which I always came out on top, then went to bed feeling sick to my stomach.
I called the lawyer in the morning, and by noon, she was at the door. Midfifties, gray suit, floral perfume with something earthy under it, and a smile bright as a brand-
new hatchet. I pulled my hair back when she came in and wished I’d put on something more formal than blue jeans and a Pink Martini T-shirt.
“Jayné,” she said, as if we were old acquaintances. She pronounced it
too. I didn’t correct her. “This must be so hard for you. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You want to come into the kitchen? I think there’s some tea I could make.”
“That would be lovely,” she said.
I fired up the kettle and dug through the shelves. There wasn’t any tea, but I found some fresh peppermint and one of those little metal balls, so I brewed that. The lawyer sat at the kitchen table, her briefcase open, small piles of paper falling into ranks like soldiers on parade. I brought over two plain black mugs, careful not to spill on anything.
“Thank you, dear,” she said, taking the hot mug from my hands. “And your trip was all right? You have everything you need?”
“Everything’s fine,” I said, sitting.
“Good, then we can get to business. I have a copy of the will itself here. You’ll want to keep that for your files. There is, I’m afraid, going to be a lot of paperwork to get through. Some of the foreign properties are complex, but don’t worry, we’ll make it.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering what she was talking about.
“This is an inventory of the most difficult transfers. The
good news is that Eric arranged most of the liquid assets as pay-on-death, so the tax situation is fairly straightforward, and we get to avoid probate. The rest of the estate is more complicated. I’ve also brought keys to the other Denver properties. I have a copy of the death certificate, so you only need to fill out a signature card at the bank before you can do anything with the funds. Do you have enough to see you through for a day or two?”
She handed me a typewritten sheet of paper. I ran my finger down the list. Addresses in London, Paris, Bombay, Athens…
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t want to be a pain in the ass, but I don’t understand. What is all this?”
“The inventory of the difficult transfers,” she said, slowing down the words a little bit, like maybe I hadn’t understood them before. “Some of the foreign properties are going to require more paperwork.”
“These are all Uncle Eric’s?” I said. “He has a house in London?”
“He has property all over the world, dear. Didn’t you know?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t. What am I…I mean, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?”
The lawyer put down her pen. A crease had appeared between her brows. I sipped the peppermint tea and it scalded my tongue.