Editor: Catherine Jones Payne and Kelsey Keating Proofreader: Hannah Ryder
SOLEMNITY Copyright ÂŠ 2019 J.S. Bailey All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please write to the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the authorâ€™s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2018964163 ISBN: 978-1-64397-001-1 (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-948540-63-6 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-948540-64-3 (Ebook) For information, write: BHC Press 885 Penniman #5505 Plymouth, MI 48170
Visit the publisher: www.bhcpress.com
works by j.s. bailey novels Rage’s Echo Servant
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book One
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book Two
The Chronicles of Servitude, Book Three
A Chronicles of Servitude Story
short story collections Ordinary Souls
multi-author anthologies In Creeps the Night A Winter’s Romance The Whispered Tales of Graves Grove Tales by the Tree
1 A BELL jangled when Jasmine Carlisle, age thirty, and her younger, thinner sister Maliyah pushed their way into the cluttered shop near downtown Portland. “Casa Macabre Oddity Shop,” the sign over the entrance had read, so Jasmine knew she couldn’t pass this one by like she’d done to the music store and the record shop preceding it on this side of the street. “Ugh,” Maliyah whispered once they were inside. A taxidermied something glared up at her from a nearby case, its sharp teeth bared in an eternal snarl. “This place is the creepiest one yet.” Jasmine craned her neck to survey Casa Macabre’s wares. She’d been haunting this sort of place a lot the past few months. This one, like the others, featured numerous glass cases protecting such merchandise as ancient figurines and horrible jewelry that 100-year-old women might wear if they had a severe vision deficit. Casa Macabre had been decorated in deep reds, purples, and blues to give it a mystical feel that Jasmine found enchanting. She
10 | J.S. BAILEY
would have to redo the house to look something like this once she got home. It would look perfect! Antiques and Oddities, a similar shop in which she’d set foot, had been located on London’s west side. She’d bought a shrunken head from David, the proprietor, and paid a small fortune to ship it to her own address back in the States so she wouldn’t have to find a way to smuggle it onto the plane. Maliyah chastised her for days after that, vowing she’d force Jasmine to have her head examined if she kept on in such a manner. “You have your hobbies,” Jasmine had said. “You let me have mine.” In the present, Maliyah glided past a shelf full of prop skulls, then backtracked and picked one up. “Alas, poor Yorick,” she murmured, then glanced Jasmine’s way. “I don’t see why these places are so obsessed with skulls. It’s weird.” “You’re carrying a skull around in your head every second of the day, so what’s the big difference?” Jasmine let her gaze rove over the nearest shelves. “Besides, that one’s fake.” “If I thought it was real, I wouldn’t have touched it.” “Scaredy cat.” Jasmine winked. “Sometimes,” Maliyah said, setting the skull back onto the shelf, “I wish we hadn’t won that stupid lottery jackpot. I miss when all we could afford was ramen noodles.” “Says the woman who was just telling me she wished she could have stayed in the Canary Islands about six months longer. You don’t wish we hadn’t won; you wish I’d spend my half on something a little more…domestic.” “Buying a new vacuum cleaner wouldn’t give me nightmares. I can’t get the image of that shrunken head you bought in London out of my head.” “Just wait until I put it on the fireplace mantel at home. I’ll have to give it a cute name. Quadrell, maybe.” “Sure, name it after your old boyfriend. That’s not weird or anything.” Maliyah moved away in a huff, and Jasmine drifted toward the back of the shop, passing shelves of crystals, antique tarot cards, and even a couple of Ouija boards. Jasmine had no
SOLEMNITY | 11
desire to collect anything of this sort; occult items would be strictly off-limits. People who messed around with that stuff were just asking for trouble. Jasmine was much more practical than that—she stuck with the décor. She picked up a tarnished candelabra bearing a $5 price tag and wrinkled her nose, then set it down and moved onward. There would have to be something good in this store. Each shop she and Maliyah raided had held some sort of treasure even if the rest of the wares were crap. Like that place they’d browsed in the Canary Islands. What had it been called? She couldn’t remember. It was more of a glorified thrift store than anything else, yet toward the end of her browsing, Jasmine discovered a beautiful bracelet made of lapis lazuli beads that she wore even now. A sharp voice startled Jasmine out of her ruminations. A middle-aged clerk standing behind the counter shook a finger at a younger woman in a knee-length dress clutching a paper bag to her chest. “You get that thing out of my store!” the clerk boomed. “But, Miss…” “Out, before I call the police!” “Fine!” The younger woman clenched her jaw and scurried out onto the sidewalk. Jasmine stared after her a moment before turning back to the clerk, who had dyed her hair so red it looked like a magic marker had exploded in it. “What was in her bag?” Jasmine asked. The clerk’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and she hesitated before saying, “A mummified human fetus. I sell a lot of things in my store, but I put my foot down when it comes to human remains.” Jasmine felt her stomach flip and wondered how old her shrunken head had been before he’d become a shrunken head— she’d never even thought to ask. “Why did she bring it in here?” “She wanted me to buy it off her. She’s brought in other things before—old jewelry and stuff. Is there anything I can help you find?” “Oh, I’m just browsing. My sister and I…” Jasmine trailed off. Where was Maliyah? Oh, there she was, over in the corner. She was
12 | J.S. BAILEY
holding something, but Jasmine couldn’t tell what it could be from this distance. “We’ve been traveling,” Jasmine went on. “We stop at shops like this in every city we visit. We’ve been to New York, Toronto, London…we actually don’t live too far from here. Portland is our last stop before we finally head home.” She held up her left wrist so the woman could see her bracelet. “I got this in the Canary Islands. You like it?” The clerk smiled. “It’s beautiful. We do have some unique pieces of jewelry in stock, if you’d like to take a look.” “Oh, sure.” “I’m Sandy, by the way,” the clerk said as she led Jasmine over to a case she had yet to examine. “And you are?” “Jasmine Carlisle,” Jasmine said, her chin held high. It wasn’t every day a shop clerk was so sociable. A flash of blue caught her eye when she peered into the case. “That bracelet looks a lot like mine.” “Perhaps its twin was calling to it,” Sandy said with a wink as she opened the back of the glass case and passed the other lapis lazuli bracelet into Jasmine’s hand. “It’s a beautiful stone. This one’s about fifty years old. They say lapis lazuli provides the wearer wisdom and can protect him or her from psychic attack.” Jasmine slipped it onto her wrist, where it clinked against the bracelet she already wore. “Is that true?” Sandy grinned. “I saw it on the internet, so of course it is.” “I’ll take it,” Jasmine said. “Maliyah?” Maliyah, still in the corner, jerked her head Jasmine’s way. She clutched something tight to her chest in a most un-Maliyah-like fashion. “What have you got?” Jasmine asked, drifting across the room to her sister’s side. Looking sheepish, Maliyah held out the object on her palm. About two by three inches in width and another two inches tall, it was a pearlescent box with the white cameo of a woman etched on the top. “Music box,” Maliyah said in a hushed tone. “Listen.” She cranked a key on the bottom, and a soft, tinkling rendition of Für
SOLEMNITY | 13
Elise began to play as the lid swiveled open to reveal a tiny, twirling ballerina. “That song was Mom’s favorite,” Jasmine said, feeling a twinge of nostalgia. Her mother appeared in her mind’s eye, sitting at the ancient, out-of-tune upright piano that sat in the Carlisles’ living room for decades, playing the song she’d loved so much. “I know.” Maliyah wiped at her eye. “I know I don’t normally get anything at these shops, but I’d love to get this. I can put it on my dresser.” Jasmine smiled wistfully at her sister. At eighteen, Maliyah was twelve years her junior, so she hadn’t gotten to spend nearly as many years with their parents before they’d passed of a heart attack and a stroke. “Go ahead and get it, then,” Jasmine said. “If it makes you happy.” Maliyah frowned a moment, as if she wasn’t quite sure that happiness was the feeling the music box instilled in her. She turned the box over, searching for a price. “How much is this?” she asked Sandy. “Fifty dollars,” Sandy said. “We think it might have been custom made for someone. They wanted it to look old, but it isn’t.” “That’s fine with us,” Jasmine said. “We’ll take the bracelet and the music box, and then we’ll be out of your hair.”
JASMINE AND Maliyah stepped out of Casa Macabre into the sunshine and started off toward the parking garage where they’d left their rental car, a silver 2018 Audi A4. Sandy had wrapped Maliyah’s music box in brown paper before tucking it into a shopping bag with handles. Maliyah gripped the bag with the ferocity of one who wouldn’t relinquish it even under force. “You surprise me sometimes,” Jasmine said as they entered the parking structure. “How?” Maliyah asked, tightening her grasp on her purchase.
14 | J.S. BAILEY
“You’re always telling me I need to be more practical, and now you’re the one who buys the most impractical thing in the store. What do people even do with music boxes?” “They crank them up and listen to them.” Maliyah pulled the passenger side door open and climbed in. “What do people do with shrunken heads?” Jasmine rolled her eyes and got in beside her sister. “Touché. Now let’s go check out of the hotel so we can head home.” The moment the engine roared to life, such an intense wave of fatigue overtook her that Jasmine had to jerk her head up sharply to prevent it from smacking into the steering wheel. “Are you okay?” Maliyah’s voice came as if from far away. Jasmine felt her head shake. She drew in several slow breaths and mustered a great effort of will to keep her head upright. What had gotten into her? She’d felt wide awake inside the shop. “I can drive if you want me to,” Maliyah said, her young brow creased in concern. If anything could get Jasmine to snap out of her fatigue, it was the thought of letting her baby sister get behind the wheel of such an expensive car. Jasmine shivered and found her center, then focused on it to will the rest of her exhaustion away. “I’ll be fine,” Jasmine said, feigning confidence. “But before we get back on the freeway, I’m stopping for energy drinks.”
2 THE SUN beat down on Joanna Halsey’s head as she sat on her apartment’s back deck sketching a new comic book page on one of those cloudless Portland days she craved like a drug. She leaned back a moment in the patio chair to regard her drawing from another angle on the tablet screen, decided she didn’t like the way Erica Melidosian’s nose looked in the second panel, and started to tweak it when her phone vibrated on the table. She lay the tablet down and held the phone to her ear. “Kris, why are you calling me?” she asked, squinting at the sliding glass doors leading inside. “We’re out of toilet paper,” her roommate, Kris Wichers, said. “Be a dear and pick some up pretty please?” “Use a tissue. I’m working on a deadline.” “We’re out of those, too. Joanna, please. I’m stranded in here if you don’t help me.” Joanna sighed, knowing she should be nice despite the inconvenience. In her twenty-three years, she’d learned plenty about
16 | J.S. BAILEY
karma. “Okay, I’ll go get some,” Joanna said, rising from the cushioned wrought-iron seat. “Aw, you’re the best,” Kris said. “And while you’re out, grab me a bag of those honey mustard chips. I’m out of those, too.” “Sure thing.” Shaking her head, Joanna pocketed her phone and went inside to grab her giant purple purse, then set out toward the corner convenience store one block from the apartment. Pedestrians jostled her once she reached the sidewalk, but Joanna didn’t mind. Portland, Oregon was so much better than Autumn Ridge down in the southwest part of the state, where she’d lived the first twenty-one years of her life, and the people who lived in Portland were the most fascinating things of all. They all seemed so nice, even Kris, who wouldn’t know how to tie her own shoes unless she looked up the instructions on her phone. The bell above the door tinkled as she entered the store, and she waved to the clerk as she snatched up a shopping basket. Today the clerk wore his customary “Keep Portland Weird” t-shirt. She’d always thought he was kind of cute with his scruffy beard and hipster glasses; she’d have to work up the courage sometime to ask him his name. Joanna breezed through the aisles, stuffing a package of toilet paper, tissue boxes, and the promised bag of chips into the basket. When she reached the checkout line, the man in front of her was busy digging through a wallet for change. Bored and just a smidgen impatient since she knew Kris was still waiting for her to come to the rescue, Joanna studied the man’s profile, supposing she might turn him into a side character in some of her illustrations if he looked interesting enough. Thick, dark sideburns, a bit of stubble, narrow jawline… Chills washed over her body as the man turned his head slightly toward her and she saw his right eye. Such a brilliant shade of blue couldn’t be natural! And his hair! Just above his forehead was a white patch that stood out starkly against the darker hair surrounding it. Joanna’s chest tightened when the man glanced away from her and finally dug out the rest of his change. He looked just like…
SOLEMNITY | 17
but that was impossible. Jordan Marshall Hennessey could not be standing in front of her in line counting out change because Jordan Marshall Hennessey had been executed two months previously for murdering twelve people, men and women alike, over the course of a decade. The murderer’s lookalike waited patiently while the clerk double-checked the mound of change piled on the counter. “You have a great day!” the clerk said, handing him a pack of cigarettes. “You as well,” the lookalike said in Jordan Marshall Hennessey’s mournful voice, and then he pocketed his cigarettes and was out the door. “You okay, ma’am?” the clerk asked. Joanna jumped—she hadn’t realized she’d been staring after the lookalike as he retreated. “That man,” she said. “Did you notice anything weird about him?” “I don’t know. I think he had a white streak in his hair.” Joanna unloaded her shopping basket onto the counter. “Did he remind you of anyone else who had a white streak in his hair?” “Hmm, nope.” “Do you ever watch the news?” “No, just Netflix. Why?” “Never mind.” Joanna shivered. Something wasn’t right here, and darned if she wouldn’t figure it out.
JOANNA BURST through the apartment door out of breath and deposited the shopping bag on the floor outside the bathroom door. “Present for you,” Joanna called to Kris, then ran to her laptop computer sitting on the marble-topped island in the kitchen and woke it from hibernation. She did a hasty search for Jordan Marshall Hennessey and clapped a hand over her mouth when his picture appeared on the screen, identical in appearance to the man at the convenience store. Wide-set blue eyes the color of crystal stared out from a pixie-like face framed by two-toned hair: the result of a genetic mutation
18 | J.S. BAILEY
called Waardenburg Syndrome, according to Hennessey’s biography. It affected one in forty thousand people. Either he had escaped prison and the media covered it up, or something terrible had happened to Joanna’s sense of perception. “Joanna, you are a hero,” Kris said, stuffing potato chips into her mouth as she entered the room. Her dishwater-blonde hair was tied in a high, lopsided ponytail, and she wore athletic shorts and a tank top like she was ready for a run, though Joanna didn’t think she’d ever seen the woman move faster than three miles an hour. “I owe you big time for…what’s the matter?” “Nothing!” Joanna said, snapping her laptop shut. “I just thought I saw…well, someone at the store looked like that killer they executed a while back. Silly, huh?” Kris wrinkled her nose as she took a seat at the kitchen island. “Eww, it’s probably some creepy impersonator trying to freak people out.” “You’re…you’re probably right.” Joanna tried to swallow but found that her mouth was too dry. The only way anyone could have impersonated Jordan Marshall Hennessey so perfectly was if they were identical twins, and according to his bio, Hennessey did not have siblings. “I hope this one doesn’t start killing people too,” Kris said through a mouthful of chips. “The way he murdered those people… that was scary.” Joanna rose and grabbed her tablet. “I need to get back to work. If you need me, I’ll be out on the deck.” She hurried out into the spring sunshine once again, but this time it had little effect on her. Opening the file she’d saved, she thought back to that awful time almost three years ago when she’d needed some serious help no physician could provide. The images she’d seen inside her head, the vile words that spewed from her own mouth…could something like that be happening again? The possibility existed that she hadn’t seen anyone who looked like Jordan Marshall Hennessey at all. Like before, it could have all been in her head.
SOLEMNITY | 19
Gritting her teeth, Joanna slid her phone out of her pocket, wishing she still had the number of the man who’d helped her. He’d called her once after she’d been healed but then she never heard from him again, and she’d lost his number when she accidentally dropped her old phone into Crater Lake on a summer outing the following year. Still, he might be reached by other means. What was the name of that church he’d gone to? St. Paul’s, she thought. Someone there might know his number. She did an internet search for the church name and called the number that came up in the results. A woman picked up on the second ring. “St. Paul’s Church. How may I direct your call?” “Um, hi,” Joanna said, feeling sudden awkwardness. “This is Joanna Halsey—does Randy Bellison still work there? He helped me out a few years back, and I wondered if he and I could talk.” A heavy silence emanated from her phone for so long that Joanna checked to make sure it hadn’t disconnected. “Hello?” Joanna said. “Are you still there?” “Hold, please,” the woman said.
TWELVE-THIRTY ON Wednesday afternoon found twenty-three-year-old Bobby Roland pushing a broom along the northern corridor of St. Paul’s Church in Autumn Ridge, Oregon. He smiled as he passed by the closed “Meeting Room” door, then turned down the eastern corridor, ignoring the sight of his imaginary doppelgänger, who moped against one wall with folded arms. “Loser,” the doppelgänger called after him. Bobby rolled his eyes. After more than two years of having the phantom pop up in random places, it was easier to pretend it wasn’t there. As he rounded the next corner in the square of hallways surrounding the actual chapel, Sarah Maynard, the middle-aged church secretary, hurried toward him out of breath. “I’m glad you came in early today,” Sarah said, holding her side—running wasn’t
20 | J.S. BAILEY
on the plump woman’s list of regular activities. “There’s a woman on the phone. She wants to talk to Randy Bellison.” Feeling a pang of sorrow at the mention of his late friend, Bobby frowned. “Did you tell her he isn’t available?” “I put her on hold. I thought it might be better if you told her what happened.” “Sure, just give me a sec.” Bobby leaned the broom against the wall and ran his hands over his face. What a delightful conversation this would be. He followed Sarah into her office and picked up the phone. “Hello?” “I’ll leave you alone for a few,” Sarah mouthed before ducking from the room. Bobby sat down at Sarah’s desk, and when no one replied to his greeting, he repeated it. “Um, Randy?” the caller said, hesitant. She sounded young, early twenties by the sound of it. “My name is Bobby,” he said. “Randy was my friend.” There came a pregnant pause. “Was?” “He passed away over two years ago. I’m sorry.” When the woman spoke next, her voice had become choked with tears. “What happened to him?” “He had a bad fall in a cave and broke his neck.” Because a demon dropped him from the ceiling to the floor without even touching him—but of course he had no intention of telling her that. “Um, what’s your name?” “Joanna Halsey. Oh, this is bad. I need help, and I thought Randy could give me some advice, but I guess that won’t happen now.” Bobby thought for a moment, then said, “I can give advice, too.” “Not this kind. Randy helped when I was going through some bad stuff. You wouldn’t know anything about it.” “How would you know? I told you Randy was my friend.”
SOLEMNITY | 21
“Because he couldn’t talk about the kind of stuff he did for me. He said it was all very hush-hush. I had to keep it a secret too for his protection.” “Let me guess,” Bobby said. “You were possessed, and he got rid of the demon for you.” As soon as he uttered those words, a memory he had nearly forgotten popped into his head: when he and Randy had first met that fateful July, Randy’s friend Phil Mason took Bobby to the Servants’ safe house so he and Randy could talk. Carly Jovingo had been there counseling a young woman whom Randy had recently cleansed. A woman named Joanna. “You and Randy must have been some awfully close friends,” Joanna said with a little giggle that spoke of her nervousness. “It’s a bit more involved than that,” Bobby said. “Randy was the Servant then, and I’m the Servant now. I even met you once at the safe house while Carly was counseling you.” “Wait—you were the guy playing the piano? And then I spilled my guts to you like some drunk at a bar?” “That’s me.” “So…you can help me?” “I hope so,” Bobby said. “What do you need?” Bobby could hear a rustling sound through the phone line like a gust of wind. “I need to know that it hasn’t happened to me again. Randy said he could tell what my problem was just by looking. If you’re like him now, I—I want you to look at me.” “That’s not advice.” “What else was I supposed to say? But seriously, something weird happened a little while ago, and I want to make sure it doesn’t have anything to do with that.” “You can stop on by here at the church,” Bobby said. “I’m almost done cleaning for today, but I can stick around a while.” “It’s not that easy.” “Why not?” “I moved to Portland.”
22 | J.S. BAILEY
BOBBY DRAGGED in a deep breath and knocked on the priest’s office door. “Come in,” said a baritone voice, and Bobby pushed the door open. Though he had only known the late Father Preston James for five months, Bobby still thought of the place as belonging to him. After Father Preston had been fatally shot right before Christmas a couple years ago, Father Kurt from St. Augustine’s Church in Hillsdale had filled in for the next two years until a new priest fresh from the seminary had been installed three months previously. Father Clayton Givens, who was thirty-two but looked a decade younger thanks to his bright eyes and round, boyish cheeks, sat in Father Preston’s old desk chair drilling Bobby with an intense stare. Instead of the sailboat models Father Preston held a fondness for, Father Clayton had decorated the place with a plethora of cat figurines that always seemed to watch Bobby when he came in to clean. “What is it?” Father Clayton asked with an edge of impatience. “I need to leave town for a few days,” Bobby said. “Who’s going to keep this place clean in the meantime?” “Sarah can do some of it. She’s helped me before when I’ve had to leave for other things.” Father Clayton’s jaw tightened. “Kurt gave you too much leeway. When you have a job to do, you need to do it.” Bobby counted to five before speaking. In his months here, Father Clayton had seemed to compensate for his youthful looks by exuding an exaggerated air of authority Bobby found entirely too annoying. “With all due respect, Father Kurt trusts me, and Father Preston did before him. They knew emergencies are more important than work.” Father Clayton lifted a blondish eyebrow. “And you have an emergency?” “An old friend does. I promise I’ll be back by the end of the week. You’ll hardly know I was gone.”
SOLEMNITY | 23
Bobby moved toward the door to leave, but Father Clayton stopped him by saying, “Why do you need the meeting room so often at night?” Bobby resisted the urge to fold his arms. “Who told you about that?” “It doesn’t matter. I just need to know what good reason you have for it.” Don’t tell him anything, the Spirit murmured in Bobby’s mind. Bobby resisted the urge to nod in reply. He had the feeling that if Father Clayton knew about his role as the Servant, he would either scoff at him or leak the news to every religious organization in the country—neither of which appealed to Bobby. “The reason I need the meeting room,” Bobby said, “is between me and him.” He pointed at the ceiling. Father Clayton, folding his arms, said nothing. “Fine,” Bobby said. “I pray in there.” Bobby may have imagined it, but he thought he saw the tiniest of smiles tug at the corner of the priest’s mouth. “Get out of here and tend to your emergency. If you’re not back by Sunday, you’re fired.”
BOBBY ARRIVED at the tiny rental house on Oakland Avenue he’d lived in for over two and a half years, feeling sprightly at the prospect of another road trip. Before entering, Bobby checked the mail and sifted through the envelopes that had been delivered that day. “Junk mail, junk mail, junk mail,” he muttered. Then, “What’s this?” A plain white envelope with no return address lay at the bottom of the stack. The postmark showed it had been mailed from Coos Bay, Oregon—a town where Bobby knew exactly zero people. His own address had been handwritten in unfamiliar cursive writing with blue ballpoint pen. He tore the envelope open, wondering if this was some sort of junk mail trickery that fed on the recipient’s curiosity. He pulled
24 | J.S. BAILEY
out a sheet of brownish stationery on which two words had been written in the same ink as Bobby’s address: I’m sorry. Bobby’s forehead creased. Who was sorry? Carly? No, this wasn’t her writing, and she lived in Seattle now, not Coos Bay. Plus, she wasn’t the cryptic type. If she felt sorry about something, she would just call and tell him. He turned the paper over. Nothing had been written on the other side. He would just have to ponder the letter later, then, as he had far more important matters to worry about. Once inside, he left a message on former Servant Phil Mason’s voicemail telling him he’d be gone for a bit, then packed a suitcase with overnight essentials. He had no intention of staying in Portland longer than a day. He’d meet Joanna at her apartment tonight, make sure she didn’t emanate the black aura indicative of demonic possession, spend the night at a nearby motel, and then drive home in the morning. Surely nothing about the trip would be more complicated than that. He paused on his way out of his bedroom to eye the bulletin board he’d hung up about six months after becoming the Servant. He’d tacked two long sheets of paper onto it, forming two columns. In the right column, he’d listed the names of all those he’d failed, including his former boss Father Preston, Randy Bellison, his birth mother Adrian Pollard, and Vincent the possessed healer he’d met at a mountain lodge where people tortured children for entertainment. In the left column he’d listed the names of all those he’d saved, including Dennis Scholl, who had been found hiding in the woods two summers ago by his mother and brother Bradley, the latter of whom had been Bobby’s first cleanse. Sometimes he wondered how awkward Scholl family gatherings might be now that two of them shared the experience of having a demon inside them.
SOLEMNITY | 25
Bobby added Mariah O’Brien, the most recent name on the list, just two weeks ago after he’d driven a demon called Invidia from her soul. So far, the left column greatly exceeded the length of the right. Bobby’s friend Kaori Saito, a fellow Servant currently studying Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, had told him to start keeping track of those he’d saved so he wouldn’t feel so bad about those he hadn’t. He hadn’t told her about the second column. He didn’t need to hear any lectures the next time he and Kaori talked on video chat. But what could he say? He couldn’t help having a morbid streak. Other people had worse problems.
3 “DO YOU understand why you’re here, Carlos?” Mia Swanson kept her face impassive as she regarded the scrawny man sitting in the chair across from her. Carlos Zapatero was a bedraggled twenty-five, and his eyes bugged out of his head as he scanned the otherwise vacant room for some means of escape. Mia shifted her weight in her own chair, which she’d set up facing the one Carlos occupied. Even if Carlos did think of a way to flee the abandoned office building where she’d trapped him, he wouldn’t be able to budge from his seat. She had told him to sit in that chair, and he wouldn’t get up until she said so. The man let out a whimper in response to her question. Sweat soaked his t-shirt and trickled down his face. He didn’t look dangerous, and there lay the deception. “I know what you’ve been doing, Carlos,” Mia said. “I have a friend who does research for me. She dug up some interesting little facts about you. I know you love Chinese food—you eat at China Wok at least three times a week. You have a pet snake named Gopher and recently received a parking ticket down the street from
SOLEMNITY | 27
the pet store where you get his food.” She paused. “I also know you’ve been making child pornography for the past seven years and selling it online.” Some of the color that had drained from Carlos’s face rushed back into it. “That’s not true!” he spluttered. “I’m a photographer; I take pictures for advertisements!” Mia gave him a sorrowful smile. “I know, but you also exploit children just to make extra cash on the side. I have no sympathy for people like you.” “You’ve got no proof it was me.” “The images and videos in question are located on your hard drive.” Carlos’s jaw clenched. “They could have been planted there.” “You will tell me the truth, Carlos.” “I—I—it was me.” “That’s what I thought. My friend passed it all on to the authorities minutes before I brought you here. They’re probably raiding your house right now, but don’t worry—I’m sure they’ll find Gopher a loving home.” Carlos struggled to rise from the chair, but Mia’s verbal command to stay put bound him more effectively than chains. “Let me go!” he wheezed. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Carlos. You’ve seen how powerful I am. I can control anyone I want, any way I want.” Which wasn’t exactly true. Just over two years ago, Mia had a run-in with a crazy man who had not responded to her commands. Looking back, she realized he must have been possessed by an evil spirit—its control over the man had overridden anything Mia could say to him. Conversely, she’d been able to control Nathaniel Bagdasarian, who wasn’t truly possessed but lived in accord with a demon, so he hadn’t been the demon’s puppet, luckily for Mia and everyone else. “Are you going to turn me over to the police?” Carlos asked, sweating worse than ever. Mia tilted her head as she regarded him. “I would, but our jails are too full already. I wouldn’t want to overburden the system.”
28 | J.S. BAILEY
“Then what are you going to do to me?” “What am I going to do? Nothing.” “Then what—?” “Stand up.” Carlos stood, trembling. Mia remained silent for a minute or two, listening to the distant drip-drip of a leaking roof in this old building that smelled of mildew and worse. She’d chosen the crumbling brick structure for its lack of occupancy, and the buildings next door on either side (housing a pawn shop and a fortune teller, respectively) were empty for the evening. None of the neighborhood businesses had outdoor security cameras. Neither she nor Carlos had been seen. “There’s a rope laying on the counter over there.” Mia nodded toward the office’s old reception area, behind which sat a short, rusty filing cabinet and not much else. The cabinet sat beneath a boarded-up window that would have looked out upon the narrow alleyway between buildings. “Go pick it up.” Carlos walked across the open space that once housed cubicles and scooped the four-foot length of rope into his arms. Terror glowed in his eyes as his body complied with her instructions against his will. “You can see that one end of the rope has already been fashioned into a loop,” Mia said. “Climb on top of that filing cabinet and tie the other end of the rope securely to that old curtain rod—and no cheating; I know what quick release knots look like. Don’t get down when you’re finished.” The curtain rod had been hung exactly eight feet above the floor—Mia had measured when scoping out the location earlier that week. Carlos’s hands shook as he tied one end of the rope to the rod, leaving approximately a foot of length between the rod and the elegant noose Mia had crafted with gloved hands so as not to leave fingerprints. “Put the noose around your neck, Carlos.” Carlos swore at her in Spanish but obeyed.
SOLEMNITY | 29
They stared at each other. A new emotion appeared in the man’s eyes: hatred. Men like Carlos Zapatero didn’t know the meaning of remorse, nor could it be taught to them. “My mother always told me our actions have consequences,” Mia said as she rose from her chair and strode across the room toward the reception counter. She halted when she and Carlos were only seven or eight feet apart. “The choices we make affect everything around us, including ourselves. I’m sure you thought your little photography business would give you a healthy bank account—which I know it has, because my friend emptied it earlier today and sent it anonymously to a charity helping victims of human trafficking. But I bet you never guessed one of the consequences would be this.” He glared down at her. She kept her gaze on him, undeterred. “Carlos, jump off the filing cabinet.” He obeyed. Mia watched him fall the few short feet from the top of the cabinet and didn’t flinch when the rope drew taut. She watched solemnly until his body’s jerking motions grew still. When she was certain beyond a reasonable doubt he had expired, Mia brushed her hands together and turned away from the corpse. “That makes number twenty-three,” Mia said to herself as she crept out the office building’s back door. Now that the day’s work was done, she could go celebrate. After all, today was her twenty-seventh birthday.
MIA LEFT Sacramento early Wednesday morning and made it home to the apartment she shared with her friend Shona McElroy in the afternoon. She let herself in, set her suitcase on the floor, and threw herself onto the couch, exhausted from her journey. Sacramento was the farthest she’d traveled during her newfound mission of forcing human scum to exterminate themselves, but knowing she’d brought Carlos Zapatero to an end made the long trip worth it.
30 | J.S. BAILEY
Mia closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. At once, the image of Carlos’s twitching body filled her head. He’d looked like a demented marionette as he died, but that monster had deserved it for what he’d done to those children. He deserved worse than that, Mia thought. But I can’t force him to explode into a million bloody pieces over and over for all of eternity, can I? She’d just started to doze off when the sound of a key grating in the doorknob roused her to full consciousness. Mia rubbed her eyes and sat up straighter as Shona came through the door wearing black slacks and a black blazer over a royal blue blouse, her box braids tied back into a ponytail as usual. “You look like hell,” Shona said as she tossed her keys on the giant Rubbermaid container they used as a coffee table. Uncharacteristic bags lined her eyes. “Everything go okay down there?” “It went off without a hitch. I bought a bottle of champagne when I was done.” “Lord, I hope you didn’t drink it in front of him.” “Don’t be gross. I drank it in my hotel room.” Mia grinned, but Shona didn’t grin back. “What?” Shona kicked off her shoes and sat down in the recliner opposite the couch, her expression uneasy. “Last night I dreamed you didn’t come home, and when the cops showed up, it wasn’t to tell me you were dead; it was to arrest me for being your accomplice.” Mia sat up a little straighter on the couch. “For the hundredth time, we’re not going to be caught. Those creeps killed themselves.” “Because you told them to! And I’m the one who digs up the dirt on them, so don’t act like neither of us are involved. If some cop gets smart, they might start looking for evidence that someone else was there.” “Shona, I’ve never even been arrested. If they found my DNA on the scene, they wouldn’t have a clue who it belonged to.” Shona folded her arms. “Suppose they find your DNA at one scene, and then they find it at another, and another. They’ll know someone was involved and might peg you for a serial killer.” “I still don’t see how they could trace it back to me.”
SOLEMNITY | 31
“Those forensic people can solve just about anything.” Mia just shook her head in mock despair, but then it occurred to her that Shona’s mood didn’t show the least amount of humor. “You’re serious about this,” Mia said. Shona threw her hands up into the air. “Are you for real right now? That dream scared me bad. You know dreams don’t normally do anything to me. But this one could happen. I—I can’t go to prison, Mia. I just can’t.” “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.” Shona’s eyes watered. “Honestly, I think this vigilante crap is starting to get to your head. Your ability makes you think you’re invincible, and you’ve forgotten you’re still human like the rest of us.” “I’m more than human,” Mia said, feeling the heat rise in her face. “I’m better than them.” “And what does that make me?” Shona’s dark eyes blazed. “Your inferior?” “That’s not what I meant.” “It sure sounds like it. I don’t much like you calling yourself a demigod just because you have this power that I don’t.” Shona tugged off her blazer, draped it over her arm, and stormed off toward her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Mia blinked in the direction Shona had gone. What in the world had gotten into her? She crossed the room and rapped on Shona’s door. “You do still plan on helping me, right?” she called. “I’ll help you pay the rent like usual,” Shona said, her voice muffled, “but I need to step back from the other stuff and reevaluate some things. I’ll be eligible for a promotion at work within the next few weeks. I can’t accept it if I’m under arrest.” She paused. “If you need someone to help you with your creeps, you’ll have to hire some other chump to do it.” Mia clenched her hands into fists, feeling herself tremble. Shona couldn’t back out of this! Not after helping Mia take care of twenty-three jerks whose sole reason for existence had been to cause others pain. She needed Shona, valued her insight and
32 | J.S. BAILEY
advice, and it would damage Mia’s crusade beyond repair if Shona were to stop. You will help me, Mia thought. You will keep finding people for me to eliminate. She opened her mouth to say the words but stopped herself. Could she really force her only friend to comply? Would that really be friendship at all? She and Shona had been friends ever since Shona had hired her to edit her college papers; there was no sense in destroying that friendship now. Before she could say something regrettable, Mia stormed from the apartment to walk to her parents’ house a mile and a half away. She couldn’t exactly tell either of her parents about her extracurricular activities, but at least they weren’t going to yell at her for being a “demigod,” whatever that even meant. After all, they didn’t know about her powers. She’d be a fool to tell them. She breathed in the spring air as she walked, brooding all the way to Wisteria Street, where she’d lived with her parents after they’d moved back to Oregon from Mississippi so many years ago now. Her parents may not have known about Mia’s gift, but someone else did: a little punk named Bobby who had a magical gift of his own. Bobby hadn’t shown an ounce of gratitude when she’d rescued him from a murderous creep who’d been plotting to kill him. Two years later, and she still couldn’t see his problem. He’d wanted Thane dead, so she’d made Thane dead for him, and he’d had to have a little hissy fit about it, like Mia of all people had been in the wrong. She’d thought about moving away after the whole affair with Bobby and Thane, but this was her town, and no self-righteous psychics could drive her to leave. She did manage to convince Shona to move in with her, though. It felt safer having her friend around when there were people in town—a.k.a. Bobby—who opposed her.
SOLEMNITY | 33
Mia reached the Swansons’ quad-level house and went inside without knocking. Her father, Sherman, was still at work, and the house remained oddly silent, so she walked through to the backyard and found her mother, Geneva, squatting in a flowerbed, annihilating an army of weeds with a trowel. Geneva turned her head and jumped, then held a hand to her chest. “Goodness, Mia, you need to learn to walk louder, or you’ll give me a heart attack. Did you have a good birthday?” “Only the best ever,” Mia said as her mother stood. At fifty, Geneva was slightly plump and had short, reddish hair that she dyed once a month because she couldn’t stand being a brunette. Mia, who regularly dyed her hair black, had inherited the hatred of brown hair from her. Brown was just too ordinary. “You say that about every birthday,” Geneva said, giving Mia a hug. “Do anything special?” “I drank an entire bottle of champagne by myself and didn’t even get a hangover.” “Impressive. Shona didn’t want to help?” Bristling at the mention of her friend, Mia said, “She wasn’t there.” “She’s still at that IT job, right?” Not sure where her mother was going with this, Mia said, “Right. She’s been there nine years.” “Maybe you ought to consider going into something like that. I’m sure it pays better than copyediting.” “I get by,” Mia said. She stood there awkwardly as Geneva resumed her work, then swatted a fly that had dared to land on her arm. Normally she didn’t run out of things to say in the presence of her mother, but now her well of words had dried up. Geneva, sensing Mia’s inner conflict, tilted her head up to regard her. “Is everything okay?” “It’s fine,” Mia said with a frown. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings about the job thing. It’s just I hear you complaining about how hard it is to make ends meet sometimes, and I thought…well, you know.”
34 | J.S. BAILEY
“I’m not looking for different work. Shona pays half the rent and buys her own groceries. It’s all good.” Except now Shona is afraid we’ll both go to jail. “It doesn’t sound all good. Did something happen?” “We got into a little fight before I came up here. Nothing major.” “Mm-hmm.” “It wasn’t about a man, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Geneva cocked an eyebrow at her. “Mia, you and Shona have been friends for years. Whatever this thing is will probably blow over without a hitch.” Mia forced herself to smile. “I guess you’re right. It was just something silly; we’ll probably both have forgotten about it by tomorrow.”
“WE ARE not going to forget about this by tomorrow,” Mia said to herself after leaving her parents’ house with a baggie full of homemade chocolate chip cookies Geneva had urged her to take with her. Her mother lived in a world of flowers and cooking and baking and didn’t have a cruel bone in her body—sometimes Mia envied her for that. Deciding it might be better to wait a bit longer to face the Wrath of Shona, Mia made a detour to The Pub, a grimy, holein-the-wall bar situated near Autumn Ridge’s central shopping district. Once inside, she ordered a bottle of India Pale Ale and started on the baggie of cookies, brooding all the while about her situation. If Shona didn’t want to help her anymore, she supposed she would still get by. Mia would have to resort to crime reports and news articles to find new victims, which would take longer, but if that were the extent of Mia’s obstacles, she might be able to live with it. Mia’s eyes drifted to the right just in time to see a man with graying brown hair walk into the bar. He looked the scholarly type,
SOLEMNITY | 35
wearing a brown blazer and thick glasses, and he swaggered up to the counter like he owned the world. Mia dropped a cookie when he turned his head. It cracked in half on the table in a burst of crumbs. “No,” she breathed as panic set in. Her eyes had just tricked her; the man she saw could not be here because she’d made him drink a glass of rat poison as punishment for his crime. The man ordered his drink and then took the foaming glass of beer to the table next to Mia’s. He looked up at her, froze a moment, then smiled. “I remember you, Mia,” he said, his eyes glimmering with what she could only describe as pure malice. “I have to say, the drinks they serve here taste much better than the one you gave me.” He lifted his glass as if toasting her, then poured back a hearty gulp. Mia grabbed her bag of cookies and fled.
about the author J.S. BAILEY enjoys writing eerie tales of the supernatural that keep readers on the edges of their seats. She has published six novels and twenty short stories, with more on the way. Bailey is fond of long walks in the woods, British television, and lots of burritos. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and cats.
When violent criminals begin rising from the dead in his adopted home town, Bobby Roland seeks the help of an old friend with knowledge in n...
Published on Sep 26, 2019
When violent criminals begin rising from the dead in his adopted home town, Bobby Roland seeks the help of an old friend with knowledge in n...