"There was a crooked man,
and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat
which caught a crooked mouse,
and they all lived together in a little crooked house."
Just once I'd like to exorcise a ghost that actually looks like bubble-headed, sheet-covered Casper, Rafe Yager thought as he sketched in his journal the latest nebulous spook with skin stretched so tightly over the skull, every bone was delineated sharply, eyes sunken deep into the sockets, the hunger for vengeance glowing menacingly in those dead-but-not-quite-gone depths. He sighed, stroking his thin goatee. In any case, another one had bit the dust, gave up the ghost as it were, finally departed for parts unknown and unknowable. And he was exhausted. This journal was one of the many he'd been keeping his misadventures as a ghost hunter since he was eleven.
Eleven, he mused sleepily, setting the journal and pen aside and laying back on the pillow on top of his sleeping bag. The age when most Native American boys're undertaking their first vision quest...
Rafe hadn't grown up in a tribe and he knew so little about that life--what little his mother and grandmother had imparted and then only reluctantly. He was a descendant of the Mino-Miskwi band whose elders vanished during a ritual at their sacred place at the top of Bloodmoon Mountain. Overnight, all the men "of age" had disappeared without a trace. What was left of the band had scattered like scared sheep, many leaving behind both Bloodmoon Cove, Wisconsin and the Old Ways. His grandmother had broken from that life completely, taking the name of the tribe meaning "good blood" and calling it what she believed it really was: Maji Miskwi.Bad blood.
When she was old enough, she'd fled Wisconsin, moved to the other side of the country in Arizona, shunned anything to do with the mysticism that'd destroyed her people and raised her out-of-wedlock daughter alone, teaching her things that his mother, in turn, had learned to shun. Instead of becoming a nomad without faith, without purpose, without tribe, Rafe's mom married a white man of faith and, in her time, raised a son who didn't know or understand his place in any world.
From the time Rafe was barely old enough to comprehend, he'd been different. He'd realized he didn't belong. Tribe or no tribe, vision quest, mysticism or whatever else there was tangible and intangible on this earth, he'd helplessly followed in the footsteps of his ancestors... the medicine men, the "holy ones", of the Mino-Miskwi band. He'd had his first vision when he was seven, seen his first ghost when he was eleven, and no matter what he did to try to escape the spirit world, it followed him. The more he ignored the spirits, the more "reality" faded and he lived in that netherworld with beings who rarely seemed to know where they were, let alone why, nor how to escape beyond following the one single-focused course that had haunted them in life and they couldn't abandon even in their half-life. Until closure was brought about, they couldn't move on to wherever it was souls were supposed to go when they died.
Rafe had joined the military right out of high school, following in his father's footsteps, believing he'd detour the curse he'd been plagued with most of his formative years. Except the situations he'd been in as a soldier--military conflicts, disputes, uprisings, skirmishes, insurgencies, ops, and even a war--had only brought him closer to what he'd been trying to avoid. With all three of his loved ones whispering in his ear as long as he could remember about what he couldn't do, getting involved in that kind of "spiritualism", he'd finally had to conclude they were wrong.
The first time he gained peace had been after exorcising his first ghost, helping the apparition--in that case, willingly (not true for so many of them since then)--move on. For the most part, he hadn't really known what he was doing beyond following his instincts. Nevertheless, in the years that followed, he'd realized the only way he could have a semblance of a normal life was to do what he now believed he was born to: Ghost hunting. Spirit exorcisms. Whatever. He'd found some things that worked, more that didn't, new approaches when all else failed, and he'd gained a modicum of peace. Despite having almost nothing else to call his own, sometimes he had enough peace to go on. He'd learned the hard way that it was all a person really needed in life...
His eyelids closed in anticipation of the tranquility that usually followed a nagging spirit departing the physical realms. He opened his eyes what felt like a moment later to find himself in a room lit only by a black candle. The cloying scent of oil burning all but suffocated him. Movement and an intoning voice from the center of the room diverted his attention from the choking smoke. Sitting on opposite sides of the candle were two women. One, by far the prettier of the two, appeared skittish and wary, uncertain about something--probably what was taking place across from her. The other woman was dressed in black from head to toe. Her nails and lips were also black. She was chanting what Rafe recognized as Psalm 94 in a low, dispassionate voice:
"...judgment shall return unto righteousness: and all the upright in heart shall follow it. Who will rise up for me against the evildoers? or who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity?"
At the same time Rafe recognized this as a vision he was having, he recognized the chanting female for what she was. On her forehead, beneath an extremely short, crazy-punk hairstyle dyed red and black, was a glowing symbol, dark even against her coffee colored skin--three fiery, blood-red scratches. The mark of the beast. The Witch's mark.
The pretty, uncertain girl with heavily-lashed, sapphire blue eyes shivered despite the warmth in the room, murmuring, "Ruby, maybe this isn't such a good idea..."
But the witch continued as if she hadn't heard her:
"Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence. When I said, My foot slippeth; thy mercy, O Lord, held me up. In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul."
Fully aware now that he was in a vision, unseen by either woman, Rafe moved around, looking closely at the wide candle in the center and running his fingers over what was carved into the wax. Though only the last word remained, he'd seen a ritual similar to this one before and recognized what the words that'd been carved on the upper part of the candle before must have been: "Eel kanno taf" (so-called "divine" names). The candle was rapidly melting away to nothing, implying the ritual had been going on for the past several nights. Given that the candle was almost gone, this was surely the final night of the spell.
Moving even closer, he saw a photograph of a gawky-looking yet sophisticated Englishman man sporting a handlebar moustache and a Van Dyke beard in the bowl beneath the candle along with a piece of parchment with the name "Thomas Buchanan" written on it. On top of the photograph and the parchment, Rafe saw a ring. His gaze lifted. Only the witch could see it from her angle. The ring was large, stainless steel and obviously heavy, with what looked like an onyx and gold-tone, ion-plated coat of arms on it. The crest looked a lot like the Witch's mark burned into the chanting woman's head. That, or a pitchfork.
That thought led to another. Does Sapphire Eyes realize that ring is there? Or did the witch put it there and hide it so she couldn't see it?
Rafe had had some experience with witches before, and as this one continued her chant--sacrilegiously using the Bible to do her evil--he wondered if this wasn't a banishing spell to rid someone of a troublesome person. To rid Sapphire Eyes of someone--Tom Buchanan?
"Ruby, maybe I should talk to Tom before we finish this. Maybe there's another way. I don't want him to get in trouble...more trouble, at the hospital. I know you said this was a 'get what you want' spell, but I'm not sure this will fix Tom's situation. Maybe that compromising situation will resolve itself and he won't lose his license... or his job."
The witch was either purposely ignoring her friend's pleas or lost in her spellcraft. Ruby's previously passionless voice was becoming louder, her tone intense as she spoke over the delicate-looking woman with shiny dark hair, the back pulled up in a high ponytail, her long bangs hanging over her beautiful, vulnerable eyes.
"Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law? They gather themselves together against the soul of the righteous, and condemn the innocent blood. But the Lord is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge. And he shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; yea, the Lord our God shall cut them off."
No, Rafe verified. This wasn't a spell for getting what Sapphire Eyes wanted. Not at all. Either this witch is totally incompetent, a novice who doesn't know one spell from another, or she's doing a banishment spell on this Tom guy on purpose--for God only knows what reason.
When Ruby opened her eyes, Rafe started at the sight of the blood red irises (contacts or something else?) and the fervency in them. As she all but shouted the last words of the Psalm, something happened that made both women jump back in terror. The candle flared violently, and a spirit arose from it with a shriek like a banshee let loose, sent to deliver a death omen.
As the form solidified, Rafe saw that it was an old man, shrunken and bent crooked, his skull showing through plainly beneath the bloodless, thin skin. The Devil's mark burned on his forehead. He started to shake his head. This spell is going wrong. Does this novice even realize it? Her beautiful friend can't have any idea what's going on there...
Across the room, Corinne's wide eyes met Rafe's for a moment. In her eyes, he saw someone or something coming awake as if from a long, unaware slumber. She drew in a breath, the sound of rattled disbelief. But there was something more in her eyes, something like pleading. She has no idea where she is, what's happening to her--maybe she hasn't known for a long time. Everything inside of Rafe wanted to reach out to her, to assure her that he'd protect her, he wouldn't let the evil touch her, hurt her.
The conjured thing dragged her attention back to it. The wraith looked at the spiritual medium for only a second before turning toward the beautiful woman, who screamed in such horror she fell back as the creature drifted toward her with a bony finger pointed at her. Standing over her menacingly, the spirit delivered his imprecation, "A life for a life. What was taken by force will be taken back from willing hands." Just like that, the apparition vanished, plunging the room in near darkness with the black candle all but spent.
The witch gasped, crying out, "Oh, God. Oh, no. What have I done? Corinne...Cori..." as she rushed to her friend. Rafe could only guess Corinne of the sapphire eyes was alive, based on Ruby's cry of relief, but she'd clearly fainted. The witch began scrambling around, turning on the overhead light, flying to the oversized bag nearby and pawing through it wildly. When she had everything she needed, she lit incense, letting the smoke build. While it did, she carved a deep X into another candle with a knife. Then she set up two small mirrors on stands so they were facing each other. She positioned the candle between them and lit the wick before beginning her invocation that she repeated over and over, more and more frantically, as if becoming increasingly afraid her spell wasn't working. Rafe guessed she was trying to reverse the spell that had conjured the creature with the fiery marks on his forehead. Ruby followed this up with another chant while sitting directly beside her friend, this one obviously a spell of protection.
Before she could finish, the phone rang, so loud and shrill, the witch let out a scream that made Rafe jump and Corinne stir. Ruby rushed across the room, muttering, "It's okay. I made it okay. Nothing happened. It didn't work...", and snatched up the cell phone from the coffee table. She talked into the device and then silence fell like a heavy cloud as she listened with unmistakable shock.
"What is it?" Corinne asked behind her, blinking as she sat up. She huddled into her sweater as if violently cold.
Her friend hung up, holding the phone limply in her hand for a moment before she turned and set it back on the table.
Corinne blinked. "Ruby...what happened? Did you...finish the ritual?"
"No. No, sweetie, we didn't finish. You... you decided not to go through with it. You got too scared and fainted dead away while I was still doing the invocation." Ruby turned away, moving toward the first candle that had melted over the photograph and gone out.
Rafe circled the room to watch her, noticing for the first time that the crested ring that'd been hiding between the photograph and the parchment was gone. Had Ruby pocketed it? When? She'd done a lot but picking up that ring hadn't been one of them. Or had something happened to it when the spell went horribly wrong and she'd summoned some kind of apparition instead of banishing this guy Tom, someone Rafe was beginning to suspect Corinne loved and Ruby felt the opposite about? Why else would the witch tell her friend she was performing a "get what you want" spell when she was actually trying to banish this guy?
Corinne's fragile features lit up as she said softly, "Oh, Ruby, I'm so glad. I got so scared. I thought I saw something...come out of the candle. A demon..."
Ruby shook her head. "No. You passed out. You must have imagined it, sweetie."
Corinne drew in a shaky breath, allowing her friend to draw her into her embrace. But then Ruby was talking in a low, comforting voice. "Cori, that phone call I just took..."
Something in Ruby's tone alerted both Corinne and Rafe to some impending doom. Corinne backed away to look at her. "What? Ruby, what happened? What's going on? Something happened, didn't it? Oh, God, not Tom. Please tell me something didn't happen to my husband..."
Ruby reached for her once more in sympathy, but her words were anything but consoling. "Oh, sweetie, I know you're devastated, but he's not worth your grief. Think of all the times he cheated on you, all the times you blamed yourself. You never required him to so much as apologize before you took him back. He doesn't deserve you. He's not worthy of your undying loyalty and love."
Corinne drew away. "Tell me what happened, Ruby."
Despite the strength in Corinne's command, when Ruby said the words--telling her of Grimoire Hospital's call, the car accident that had killed Tom--Corinne screamed her grief, her legs giving out as she collapsed as though everything that had mattered in her life was gone. Rafe found himself reaching for her, too, though his vision was already fading, drawing him out of its reality. The last view he had were her sapphire eyes, so blue, so bright and devastated. The scent of fragrant, exotic fruit and flowers filled him so that even when he woke in his tent in the Florida campground, still hearing her broken cries, he felt consumed by the perfume and misery of this tender-hearted, fragile woman. His heart was beating a million miles an hour, and it took him a long time to find his equilibrium and sort out the vision.
His best evaluation led him to conclude Corinne had married a man unworthy of her, one who'd cheated on her countless times and might have compromised his job in doing so, a man this novice witch had obviously disliked enough to attempt a banishment conjuration on under the guise of some "get what you want" spell her unaware friend had agreed to in an desperate attempt to free her husband from a predicament of his own making.
Sitting up, Rafe grabbed his journal and pen. As fast as he could, he sketched what he'd seen, lingering over the image of Corinne that remained vivid in his mind. He didn't have to struggle too hard to deduce that his vision had taken place in Grimoire, Wisconsin. His grandmother had spoken of "Erie County" which contained both Grimoire, a larger city, and Bloodmoon Cove, the very small town an hour away where their ancestors had met their doom. Even if the witch hadn't spoken of Grimoire in the vision, something inside, something unexplainable, insisted that Rafe had to go home.
Home? How can Bloodmoon Cove be home? I wasn't born there, never been anywhere near that place in my entire life. Nan was born and raised there. She disowned it, disowned the few people left of her band. We moved around so much with my grandmother while I was growing up, with Dad in the military, I've never really had a home. Nan called Erie County, especially Bloodmoon Cove, cursed, haunted. Warned me to never, ever go there because, as long as the tribe was missing, the evil would remain centered there. Even in Arizona, in the place we settled after Dad resigned his commission, I lived with people who loved me and put me first in their lives... yet I never belonged there. Because my home is Bloodmoon Cove. I've always known that, regardless of the lack of logic in that conclusion. This vision only solidifies my longtime belief.
Rafe's dad had died with their opposition between them, unreconciled. His father believed he was "chasing demons", and Rafe couldn't deny that maybe he was, sometimes. He'd seen evil firsthand. Like it or not, he couldn't ignore the spirits that came to him because, whenever he tried, they tormented him more. To rid his life of their nagging, he helped the good ones find whatever they were looking for that'd haunted them beyond life, and he drove the bad ones out of the earthly realms by fire, salt, and iron.
He had no idea why he'd been given the vision of Corinne with her beautiful sapphire eyes, of her desperately foolish love for the wrong man and her bad choice of friend, but he knew sooner or later he would have to heed its command and go there, go where he'd been begged to stay away from by his mother and grandmother who were both gone from the earth, and, thank the good Lord, hadn't returned as spirits. Still, he was alone. He was lonely. He had no one and almost nothing to call his own. Whether led by fate or some higher power, he would heed this call he'd been given because it was his destiny. He would do it for the promise of peace, however transitory. And for those sapphire eyes he already knew he'd never forget...
Corinne stared in shock at the recognized return address from a law office in Grimoire on an envelope she'd taken from her mail cubby. She'd begun receiving envelopes from them a few months ago. Only because it had something to do with her beloved, departed husband had she opened the first one. The others had been deemed cruel reminders, burned in the kitchen sink without opening. The first had talked of Tom's grandfather, of whom, the letter said, she was the last remaining heir by marriage.
When she and Tom had gotten married, he'd refused to let her take his name. He'd insisted she keep her maiden name to prevent his family from ever finding her--and should they ever attempt to contact her, she was to have nothing to do with them, and that was whether he was living or dead. Beyond that, he refused to explain, but she'd assumed he was estranged from his family to the point that he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with them.
But what do I really know about them? How do I know the rift wasn't caused by some minor thing that had nothing to do with personal honor? Maybe Tom had been shunned for... his many indiscretions.
Corinne's conscience burned at her disloyalty. She focused her attention on the larger envelope, her hand automatically noting that this one had something bulky inside it. And warm. Unfathomably, her fingers felt warmed to whatever was beneath the manila in just the way they did whenever she touched Tom's things--his clothes, his photographs, his cologne, his handkerchief that she carried with her always. Curiously, she tore the envelope open, gasping out loud when the familiar ring fell to the plush carpeting in the foyer of the apartment building she lived.
Tom! Tom's family crest ring! He wore it all the time, wouldn't let it off his finger for anything in the world. Sometimes I teased him that it was welded on, and he never laughed...
Just before Tom's death six months before, this ring had been missing. He'd reacted to the loss as if the world had come to an end. Corinne bent and picked up the heavy stainless steel ring, her gaze fixed on the crest with three jagged lines. There was no mistaking this ring. Her fingers closed around the gift and the warmth from it spread all through her. For a moment, she could get herself to believe everything was all right. Tom was here again, loving her, giving her the incentive to get up and face the world each and every day of her life.
When she closed her eyes, holding the ring against her heart, she heard the voices louder than ever, shrill. The voices had been with her since she fell in love with Tom Buchanan. Somehow they were outside her but always close by, whispering in her ears, floating before her eyes; and inside her, in her heart, her mind, her spirit, his name always on the tip of her tongue. The only time they'd gone away had been... Corinne gasped at the memory that came with the same, icy clarity. When I saw that man, Native American, both stone-like yet impassioned as his eyes met mine over the smoking candle Ruby used for her "get what you want" spell... But that didn't happen. I was hallucinating. Even still, the memory of the voices halting, quieting, leaving me for good for those mere seconds was and is so strong, it feels more real than anything has since I fell in love with Tom.
Life before Tom Buchanan... Those memories didn't feel like her own. She remembered Tom, remembered her love for him like the only thing that existed, that mattered. Before him, all was vague. She had parents, childhood friends, hobbies and dreams, but they were wisps--someone else's life inside her. She remembered moving to Grimoire, starting college, intending to become a doctor. Mere recollections, like pictures in another person's situation. Tom, Tom... he was all, everything.
As she stared down at the familiar crest ring, Corinne felt strongly compelled to put the band on, to bring her husband as close as she could get him.
The doors into the building behind her opened and shut again with a slam, jolting her out of whatever held her spellbound. Quickly, she stuffed the ring back into the envelope, offered a distracted smile to the tenant who'd come in, and rushed to her apartment on the second floor. Once inside, she laid her mail and bag on the kitchen counter, realizing she had to read the letter this time. She had to take it seriously because Tom's ring had accompanied its arrival.
Her fingers shaking, she read the urgent letter, again stating that she was the only surviving heir of Edward Buchanan, the grandfather of her deceased husband, by marriage. Master Buchanan was old, his health rapidly failing, and his desire was to meet his grand-daughter-in-law and bestow upon her the legacy of Crooked House, the family estate situated in Bloodmoon Cove. Given her disregard for the earlier summons, he'd realized she would require some proof she was indeed the heir since he was certain Tom had told her horrible things about his family--none of it true. Hence, his own family crest ring that was the key to her entry into the family.
Not Tom's? Something like confused disappointment filled her, but she realized that even if this wasn't Tom's ring, it did indeed belong to a member of his family. How could she ignore this summons? Tom had never felt so far away. This ring...a part of him was here now. By touching the ring, a part of her could touch him again.
"'Master Buchanan urges you to visit the family home, to get to know him and he, in turn, can get to know you, his last remaining relative, before he passes and everything he owns will be transferred to you and you alone.'"
The sound of something smashing and the curse that followed made Corinne pick up the envelope with the ring and rush across the hall to Ruby's apartment. As usual, the door was unlocked.
"Are you all right?" Corinne said as soon as she entered to find Ruby looking down at the shattered remains of a porcelain incense burner.
Ruby grimaced good-naturedly. "I guess I should be glad it wasn't a mirror. God, how I hate these crutches."
Corinne's friend had broken her leg after falling down some stairs in her shop. She'd been on crutches for the past week and never before would Corinne have said her friend could be so helpless. Ruby hailed from New Orleans, where her family was spread far and wide, thick as thieves, and, according to Ruby, nosy as all get-out. She was tall, big boned, what she liked to call "a free person of color". Since her accident, she'd taken to wearing all black floor-length dresses (her "witch garb") because she found anything else difficult to put on and take off with the broken leg.
While Corinne had never considered herself a superficial person, one motivated by looks, she had to admit that once upon a time, she might not have gone anywhere near Ruby Mazant. On looks alone, she'd never seen a stranger person. Ruby's hair was close-cropped against her skull, shaved in odd, intricate triangles, each dyed either ebony black or scarlet red. She came from a long line of white witches, maybe a few stray hoodoo priestesses, and she was still a novice herself. In college, she'd opened a small occult shop called Mystic Shadows that had expanded in the years since she graduated so that she was now able to make a living by selling her occult items.
From the first, Corinne had been put off by her, but...somehow...she'd become Corinne's only friend. Corinne wasn't entirely sure how that'd come about. Her memory seemed to have blanks about that, just as it did when it came to recalling everything before she'd fallen in love with Tom and the voices had come, drowning out all else. Considering she'd been an orphan without a single memory of her real parents and had ultimately been adopted by a wonderful family who'd led as uneventful a life as beavers, maybe her forgetfulness was warranted. Corinne had lived a quiet, not unhappy existence until...Tom, there, here, everywhere, everything, inside me, filling me, screaming his name and his presence, his entire being, becoming my whole life, nothing before and nothing now, after him.
Corinne bent to carefully pick up the broken pieces, her gaze meeting her friend's as she straightened. "Oh, Ruby," she cried out at once, "why do you have to wear those creepy contacts?" Since her friend had discovered a place she could get contacts in all kinds of "monster" shades and detailing, she'd been wearing them so she had yellow, orange, silver, white or red eyes at any given time--whatever was most horrifying.
Ruby shrugged, laughing. "I like them. They're unusual. Like I am."
Corinne shook her head, dropping the shattered shards into the trash and going to get the broom and dustpan. While she did, her friend asked, "Have you been putting that steeped basil into your baths and doing the protective chant I taught you while visualizing yourself in the middle of a pentagram? You can't be half-hearted. You have to believe in it or it doesn't work."
Corinne shook her head again as she swept. "Ruby...I've been doing what I'm capable of for six months, against my will, I might add. How long do I have to? I don't even know what I'm cleansing or purifying or protecting myself from. And I took down those mirrors you said I should keep pointed at each other, too, burning the candle between them. You know me, Ruby. I don't like this stuff. It's too weird, and I don't understand it. It feels wrong to me. I don't know how I ever let you talk me into that spell..."
The words were pouring out of her without forethought, and Corinne gasped in realization that she was talking about Tom's death--what had happened just before the car accident, when she'd been so desperate to help him out of the unbearable situation he'd been in. He'd slept with a patient at the hospital and he'd gotten caught in the very act by another doctor, a superior. He'd worked so hard to become a doctor himself. Corinne had put him through college, forgetting her own dream of becoming a doctor to see that he accomplished his goals.
"That he actually told you the sick truth about the whole, screwed-up situation...like he wanted to test you, prove whether you could love him even after..." Ruby had spit in response six months ago, appalled to the point of disgust that had only gotten worse when Corinne had begged her to do something, anything, to help Tom so he wouldn't lose his license, wouldn't be removed from his already precarious position at the hospital.
Ruby glanced away, knowing how hard it was for Corinne to talk about anything where her husband was concerned these days. She looked at the envelope with the letter on top that Corinne had deposited on the kitchen counter while she cleaned up Ruby's mess. "What is this?"
Grateful to abandon the direction she'd been heading with her thoughts, Corinne said, "Remember months ago I told you I got that letter supposedly from the lawyer who represents Tom's family? This is another."
Without permission, Ruby was avidly reading the letter. Corinne put away the cleaning tools, then went to stand next to her friend. While she read, Corinne shook the envelope slightly and then pointed to the ring that fell out onto the counter. Ruby made a choking sound the sight of it, pushing herself back a step. "Where did that come from?" she demanded, obviously panicked. "It was gone...missing..."
Corinne nodded. "It's not Tom's. It belongs to his grandfather. He wanted to make sure I knew this was all legitimate. So what do you think? I can't believe Tom's family was so close all this time." Bloodmoon Cove was a scant hour from Grimoire. Such a small town to include an "estate". And what kind of an estate is named Crooked House anyway? Hardly sounds like anything prestigious. Tom might have told me or I just guessed that he grew up a spoiled, pampered rich kid. His extravagant tastes continued even when he broke the ties with his family and he couldn't afford the lifestyle he was accustomed to...
I still can't believe I sold Tom's things. Even if I had no choice because he left behind so many debts... and Ruby was right--I have no need for his exotic, imported car, his many jewels, his massive, tailored wardrobe, first edition library.
"You're not actually considering going there, are you?" Ruby asked in shock. "What would possess you to do that?"
Corinne sighed, finding herself unexpectedly grateful that her friend was so motherly toward her. Usually just when she needed it, Ruby would become the voice of reason Corinne felt so incapable of being. She needed that now more than ever. "You know the reason as well as I do, Ruby. Tom left behind a lot of debts. We barely started paying off his undergraduate loans, and then medical school. All his possessions... I don't know how I'll ever make a dent in paying these off without selling everything, moving out of this luxury apartment I can't even afford every month. Don't need for just me anyway. That doesn't even get into my own for the first two years of college." How can I move? Sell all Tom's things? I don't need any of these things, but Tom used them. He touched them. His scent is still on them. His presence remains.
"Cori, didn't Tom tell you to stay away from his family? He was adamant about that."
Corinne focused her gaze on the small, sparkling stud earring in her friend's nose to avoid her contact-creepy eyes.
"Maybe they're...I don't know, dangerous," Ruby insisted.
"I suppose they could be. But there's one old man whose health is failing. How dangerous could he be? Besides, I always got the impression, though Tom wouldn't confirm it, that his family disowned him mainly because he left. Because they wanted him to take over the family business...whatever that is... and assume his rightful place as the head of the family. And he always wanted to be a doctor. That apparently wasn't done in the Buchanan family. Leaving the family estate simply wasn't acceptable and could never be forgiven."
Ruby snorted in her usual unladylike way. "Who wouldn't want a doctor in the family?"
Corinne shrugged in wonder.
"Maybe there's more than he ever told you."
"I'm sure there is. But he hated talking about his past. I never pressured him."
The words "about anything" hung between her and Ruby, but neither spoke them. Corinne pushed the ring, which seemed to flare against her flesh warmly in the contact, back into the envelope and stuffed the letter after it.
"You're not actually considering this, are you? Going there? Maybe even living there? On the 'family estate'? Who has estates anymore anyway? Unless they're filthy rich."
"Maybe his family loved him, hated losing him," Corinne said softly. "I've never had a family."
"Of course you did. The family that adopted you? Hello? The Zellmans?"
Corinne frowned, realizing belatedly that Ruby was right. Why did she always forget that almost as if her life was divided into two separate halves: Before Tom and After Tom? Sometimes she felt she had nothing concrete to call her own before she fell in love with Tom. Her friend was right... and yet she couldn't understand what Corinne had been through. When the love of her life had died, in ways Corinne concluded her own life had also ended. She still loved her husband as much as she had the day he died. The voices were as strong now as they'd been, filling her entire being and every waking and dreaming moment with him, when he was alive. She was as consumed by her feelings as she had been from the start with him, beyond life, death, any sin, no matter how unforgivable. The voices wouldn't let her do anything that meant moving away from all that mattered to her. Tom. Tom. Don't make waves. Don't give him a reason to abandon you...
"Maybe you're right," Ruby said suddenly. "You'll never get out from under this debt without something like a major inheritance to off-set it. You should never have been forced to take it on anyway."
Don't say it. Don't voice what we both know--how much you hated Tom, despised him, thought he was the biggest creep on the planet. You can't understand any more than anyone else can, Ruby. I loved him. More than anyone or anything I've ever loved. I'll never stop loving him, never get over him, never leave behind this yawning hole inside me without him, a hole that's sucking away my will to live. I'll never fall in love again. Never. Six months after his death, I haven't moved on, haven't even tried. I can't imagine how I would.
In the six months since Tom's death, Ruby had stopped bad-mouthing him the way she had all those years of their marriage, pronouncing judgment on him, telling her she was worth so much more than he could ever give her. Ruby knew she'd curl up and die if anyone--especially her closest friend--said a bad word about him now.
"Maybe you do need a change of scenery, Corinne," Ruby said softly, her yellow eyes freaky yet tender with emotion. "And if, after this old guy kicks it, you're left with enough money to pay off all those debts, well, that can't be a bad thing. Then maybe you can leave your suck-fest job, get an apartment without so many memories..."
Though Corinne had originally intended to go to medical school and become a doctor, she'd realized after falling in love with Tom and marrying him that they couldn't both afford their dreams. So she'd given up hers, supported his. She was a registered nurse at a nursing home, a job that once upon a time she thought she could continue doing indefinitely. Now, since Tom had died in the car accident, she couldn't stand even the smell of the place. Death hovered everywhere inside those walls, and she couldn't take any more death.
"I don't want anyone else to die," Corinne said almost with thinking. "Even a stranger who estranged Tom. Maybe something happened between them that wasn't anything like Tom made out."
"You think he lied?"
"I think it wouldn't hurt to find out more. And obviously his grandfather doesn't hold a grudge about any of it. Maybe he's even sorry that he and Tom didn't stay in touch. He must know Tom di--" Corinne swallowed the evil word, banishing it even from her mind. The voices screamed for ignorance.
To be in the family home where the man I love grew up, lived most of his life until he started college--what else could I want? In that place alone, I can be as close to Tom as it's possible to be now. I can be where I belong again. I have to go there. There's no other option.
"So you're going? You're definitely going?" Ruby said, no doubt seeing the determination in her face.
"Ruby...I know... But... Well, would you come with me?"
"Look, I'll pay for everything. You're off your feet for how many months. You said you don't want to navigate all the stairs in the shop with your crutches and that your employees can handle things in your absence. We'll just go to Bloodmoon Cove for a few days. Check things out. I'll talk to my supervisor at work, but I'm sure she'll give me time off. She always said I didn't take enough after..." Blindsided once more by reality, the voices reaching fever-pitch, Corinne brushed reality away from her once more. "Anyway, I'm going. I would love to have you come with me."
"You sure you don't want to stay at the 'estate'?"
Corinne shook her head. "I don't know what things will be like there. Best to stay in a motel, and an estate implies stairs. Lots and lots of stairs."
Ruby grimaced. "Which I'm looking to avoid. Sure. Why not? I've never been to Bloodmoon Cove, not even to the park it's known for, other than to pass through on the way somewhere significant. I'll call my staff and let them know. And I'll do what I can to pack while you're at work."
"Great. I need to get going. When I get back, I'll get a little bit of sleep, then I'll pack, help you finish, and we can be off."
Ruby smiled. "It'll be an adventure. I think we both need that after all we've been through."
Corinne offered a smile that felt painful and almost sacrilegious.
As she went down to her car to drive to the nursing home for her shift, she wondered why the letter hadn't included a phone number so she could call Crooked House and let Tom's grandfather know she was coming for a short visit. Calling ahead might give her some indication whether or not this was a good course of action. Maybe that's why a phone number wasn't included?
She could always call the law office in the morning, but she wanted information now. During her break, she used her cell phone to look up the Buchanan estate, Tom's grandfather on the internet. But there was nothing, nothing at all there to give her the details she required, not so much as a phone number or an address on SuperPages for anything called "Crooked House". True, Bloodmoon Cove was a very small town. If memory served the few times she'd driven near it, the popular was under 500. She would probably find the estate easily enough, especially if she asked around town, even without an address.
As the old nursery rhyme went around her head, she wondered why, if they were so eager to get her to Crooked House, neither the lawyer nor his client had provided anything as basic as a street address.
Corinne's scream, the terror in her haunting blue eyes, woke Rafe as it had countless times before in the past six months he'd been making his way steadily north, always finding things to distract and keep himself from the place he knew he needed to go.
Bathed in cold sweat, feeling a kind of urgency he wanted to ignore just as he had his own destiny, he sat up, reaching for his journal. As he flipped through six months' worth of sketches, all of this woman he longed for in a way that was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before, he could feel his body responding to the memory of her scent, like exotic fruit and flowers, the vibrant color and enthralled passion in those sapphire eyes, her extreme vulnerability...seemingly unaware of the power behind the witch she'd trusted, unconscious of the danger she might have brought about with her desperation to help the man she loved.
In some ways, Rafe felt like he knew her, he'd wanted her for so long. He'd had visions before, certainly ones of vulnerable young women. He'd never responded to them in any personal way before...beyond needing to go and help that person in the manner he knew only he could. Once his task was done, he moved on, never looked back.
Not this time... I've told myself all this time that the vision wasn't real, didn't mean anything, that I couldn't go against Nan's and Mom's dying wishes by going anywhere near Bloodmoon Cove, where I now know Corinne is heading based on that letter I saw in a vision. I can't take the risk of...
I don't even know what my grandmother was so frightened of. Did she think going back would awaken something? An evil? An ancient one that went underground when the men of the tribe disappeared?
Rafe took a deep breath, trying to clear his head and ignore the growing apprehension inside him. What was it about this woman Corinne, beyond her loveliness, her heedless sweetness, that captured him so much? Rafe couldn't deny to himself that he was lonely, a loneliness far exceeding the reality that he had little if no real, tangible contact with other human beings most of the time. His family was gone. His father had been an equipment service technician after leaving the military and he'd died on the job, some random, unfortunate accident. His mother's asthma, a lifelong condition, had flared uncontrollably due to a common cold one winter while he'd been in the service, it'd progressed to pneumonia, and, by the time he heard anything about it, she was long gone. Nan, his grandmother and only living relation, no surprise, simply a toss-up, had died of liver cancer instead of lung, years after his parents were gone. Rafe suspected her many, lifelong addictions had contributed to her frailty. She never got over leaving home, her family, the tribe, even though she believed she could never go back. She never belonged anywhere else either.
Rafe didn't have friends. It'd been a long time since he'd had a lover, even one who considered him little more than a means to an end. He didn't live the kind of life any woman would find attractive, no two ways about that. Whenever he reached for the softness of a female body, he wanted so much more than skin against skin, hips moving recklessly toward temporary gratification, getting his while she got hers. But 'more' was never in the offering, and he always walked away with regrets and vows to endure the loneliness of going without even a shade of what he truly desired. Voluntary seclusion was by far preferable to the desolation of forcing himself to see the truth of his human condition: Alienated, isolated, friendless, heartbreakingly forlorn.
And he desired Sapphire Eyes. Never before had he ached to reach for a person the way he did her, longing to pull her out of harm's way and straight into his arms, his life, the apex of everything he was and all he might someday be. He couldn't wish that away that even as the inappropriateness of it shamed him right down to his core. That was part of what he'd been avoiding while he took his time heading toward the one place on earth he knew better than to go, the one place he knew without a doubt he'd end up. Sooner or later. Like it or not, Mom and Dad, Nan... Me and Destiny, meeting up where we were always meant to. But maybe I'm not completely alone in the world.
His grandmother had told him she had a brother who'd stayed behind in Bloodmoon Cove while she'd run far away as soon as she got the chance. Whether that sibling was still alive or had had a family of his own was in question. Maybe I have relation in Bloodmoon Cove. Maybe it's the one place I do belong instead of where I've been for too many years--in the locus where the dead-but-don't-know-it dwell.
And maybe Corinne needs me. I don't know why. Maybe that wraith that rose out of what had to be a cursed ring is after her, intending to live up to the invocation it imparted to her, not her witch friend who'd conjured it. "A life for a life. What was taken by force will be taken back from willing hands."
Rafe tucked his sketchbook back into his saddlebag. It was time to go. Maybe I can save her. Maybe I'm all that can save her. Even if I can never have her, I know whatever doom that creature pronounced will happen soon. I have to go now, not stopping until I'm where I need to be... if for no other reason but that there's nothing else left for me anymore.