It always burned, even in the dark, cold hours of the
morning when nearly everything slept.
Anya stood on the doorstep of the haunted house, hands
jammed into her pockets, stifling a yawn. She'd taken a cab,
not wanting her license plates to be seen and recorded in
the vicinity. The cab had peeled away, red lights receding
down the gray street. The two-story brown brick house before
her looked like every other house on the block, windows and
doors ribboned in iron bars. Cables from the beat-up panel
van parked curbside snaked under the front door, but no
light shined inside. Empty plastic bags drifted over the
cracked sidewalk until trapped by a low iron fence.
She poked the doorbell. Inside, she heard the echo of the
chime, the responding scrape of movement. Anya wiped her
feet on the doormat duct-taped to the painted stoop, waiting.
A lamp clicked on inside the house, and the door opened a
crack. "Thanks for coming," the masculine voice behind the
"It's not like I could say no."
That was the truth; it was not as if she could turn down
what they asked, even if she wanted to. She held back a
larger truth that scalded her throat: And I wish you
would stop calling. I wish you would stop asking me to do
Anya stepped over the cords into the circle of yellow light
cast by a lamp with a barrel-shaped shade in the living
room. The shade's wire skeleton cast dark spokes on the
ceiling, illuminating a water stain that had been carefully
painted over. But the water had still seeped through,
yellowing the popcorn ceiling. A wooden console television
sat dark and silent as a giant bug in the corner, rabbit-ear
antennae turned north and east, listening for a dead signal.
A shabby plaid couch dominated the room, covered with
out-of-place pieces of tech equipment: electromagnetic field
readers, digital voice recorders, compact video cameras.
Laptop computers were propped up on TV-tray tables, casting
rectangles of blue light on the walls.
Anya's gaze drifted to the video cameras, then shied away.
"I don't want to be recorded."
Jules, the leader of the Detroit Area Ghost Researchers,
leaned against the wall, nursing a cup of coffee. No one
would ever suspect Jules to be so deeply interested in the
paranormal that he would lead a group of ghost hunters. He
was the epitome of an ordinary guy: early forties, slight
paunch covered by a blue polo shirt, well-worn jeans. A
tattoo of a cross peeked out underneath his sleeve.
Exhaustion creased the mahogany face underneath the Detroit
Tigers baseball cap. Judging by the amount of equipment and
the rolled-up sleeping bags in the corners, DAGR had spent a
number of nights here.
Anya perched on the edge of the couch, rubbed her
amber-colored eyes. "What's the story?"
Jules took a swig of his coffee, creamer clinging to his
dark moustache. "We first took the case two weeks ago... the
little old lady that lives in the house was convinced that
her dead husband was coming back to haunt her. She described
lights turning off of their own accord, dark shapes in the
"Did she come to you or did you find her?"
"I found her." Jules worked as gas meter reader in his day
job. He had a knack for easy conversation, and people
instinctively trusted him. Anya suspected he might have some
latent psychic talent in getting a feel for places and
people. He had an affinity for most people, anyway. Jules
seemed wary of Anya. She didn't think he liked her much or
thought very highly of her methods. But she got the job done
when Jules couldn't.
"She's got a basement meter and was afraid to go down there
all by herself. Neighbor lady who used to do her laundry
won't do it anymore...said a lightbulb exploded while she
was loading the washer." Jules took a sip of his coffee.
"What evidence have you found?" Anya asked.
Brian, DAGR's tech specialist, peered over one of his
computer screens and took off a pair of headphones. "Come see."
Anya sat beside him on the sagging couch that smelled like
lavender. Brian scrolled through some digital video; she
assumed it to hade come from a fixed-camera shot of the
basement stairs. A flashlight beam washed down the steps,
green in the contrasting false color tones of night-vision
footage. The glow from the screen highlighted the planes and
angles of Brian's face. Anya noted the circles under his
blue eyes and his mussed brown hair. She thought she smelled
the mint of the caffeinated shower soap he favored still
clinging to him.
Anya never asked where Brian got all his techno-toys. She
knew that most of DAGR's clients had little money and
donations were few and far between. DAGR was more likely to
be paid with an apple pie than cash. She suspected that
Brian borrowed much of it from his day job at the
university. Apparently, the eggheads in the IT department
never seemed to notice that things kept disappearing into
The footage paused, fell dark green once more. In the well
of jade darkness under the stairs, something moved. The
shape of a hand clawed up over one of the upper steps, then
"Weird," Anya breathed, resting her heart-shaped face in her
hand. "What else have you got?"
"This." Brian handed her his headphones, still warm from his
ears. Anya fitted them over her head, listened to a static
hum of low-level white noise that barely vibrated an
on-screen noise meter.
"Wait for it."
There. A hiss shivered the line on the meter. A voice--reedy
and snarling--ripped the volume line to the top of the
Anya frowned. "Can I hear it again?"
Brian backed the tape up. Static hummed, something hissed,
and the voice repeated: "Mine."
Anya pulled the headphones off, disentangling them from her
sleep-tousled chestnut hair. Her hair caught on the copper
salamander torque she wore around her neck and she gently
unsnarled it. The salamander gripped its tail in its front
paws, the tail sinuously curling down to disappear between
Anya's breasts. The metal, as always, felt warm to the
touch. "Did you guys provoke it?"
"Of course. We told it that it was ugly and that its
transvestite mama dresses it funny." The youngest member of
the group, Max, grinned at her, megawatt smile splitting his
brown face. He'd been exiled to the floor, hands wound in
his warm-up jacket, his sneakers and long legs tucked under
one of Brian's TV tables.
Jules smacked him on the back of the head. "Max got too
mouthy with it. Started in on the 'your mama' jokes while I
was reading the scriptures to it."
Max ducked. He was still on probation and was very close to
getting booted from the group. Anya hoped the kid would
stay, that he would eventually fill the spot on DAGR's
roster from which she was trying to extricate herself.
Though no one could do exactly what she could do, it would
be good for them to have someone new to focus on.
"So...what is it, exactly?" Anya asked, redirecting the
conversation from Max's punishment to the matter at hand.
"We don't think it's the old lady's husband." Katie's hushed
voice came from the darkened kitchen as she pushed Ciro's
wheelchair across the wrinkled olive-colored carpet. Katie
was DAGR's witch. She was dressed in jeans and a patchwork
blouse, her blond hair curled over her back, tied with black
velvet ribbons. A silver pentacle hung just below her
throat, gleaming in the dim light. "It feels like an
impostor, something toying with her."
Ciro folded his gnarled ebony hands over the blanket in his
lap. The light from Brian's computers washed over his
small-framed glasses, and he smiled at Anya. "Hello, Anya."
"Hi, Ciro." Anya crossed to the old man and gave him a hug.
He felt more fragile than the last time she'd seen him. It
had to be a serious event for Ciro to be here... he was the
group's on-call demonologist. And he was the one who had
brought them all together, over Jules's objections. Ciro
understood, more than anyone else, what it cost Anya to be
here with them.
Anya put her hand on Ciro's thin shoulder. "Is it a demon,
Ciro shook his head. "I don't think so. I think it's one
pissed-off malevolent spirit that's moved in. The woman's
grief opened the door... but it's a tough bastard."
"You tried to drive it out already?"
Katie nodded. "Salt, bells... we even brought in a priest.
It's rooted here and we can't dig it out." From the corner
of her eye, Anya watched Jules frown at Katie. He didn't
think much of Katie's methods, either. Jules preferred to
put the fear of God--or at least his version of it--into
ghosts to scare them out the windows, but that seemed to be
working less and less. Anya observed the carbon stains
worked into Katie's fingernails. The witch had been trying
hard, but all her spells and incantations had also failed to
drive it away. This had been happening more and more often
in recent months: recalcitrant, restless spirits that just
wouldn't let go. Once a spirit had chosen to hang on, after
all efforts to convince it otherwise, there was no choice
but to remove it by force.
"The old lady wants it gone?" Anya asked, just to be
certain. There was always the possibility that the old
woman's attachment prevented it from leaving. Perhaps, in
her loneliness, she'd taken in a spiritual boarder. Anya
understood how isolation could cause a person to unwittingly
do things contrary to one's best interests. An empty, silent
house left a lot of room for ruminations, for regrets. And,
sometimes, sinister things could move into those spaces.
"She wants it out. She wants to sell the house and move to
Florida." Ciro smiled. "I'm jealous."
"Will you do it?" Jules's expression was pinched. "Will you
get rid of it?"
Get rid of it ... that sounded so tidy. So clean.
Like taking out the garbage. Ciro glanced sidelong at her,
the only one with an inkling of what this cost her, over and
"Okay." Anya shrugged off her coat. "Take me to it."
Anya's step creaked on the basement stairs. Her boots
crunched on the eggshell fragments of broken glass... the
remains of the overhead lightbulb, she guessed. She smelled
the cinnamon tang of Katie's crushed magick, rotting in the
dark. Behind her, the basement door closed off the dim light
from the kitchen, leaving Anya in darkness.
Anya clicked on her flashlight, swept it down the stairs.
Shadows shrank, pulling back behind the washer and dryer.
She smelled moldering potatoes and onions, dampness on the
dirt floor... and pickles. Her brow wrinkled. Dozens of
canning jars were arranged on a wooden shelf, most of them
shattered, some cracked and still drizzling glass and
vinegar to the now-filthy concrete floor. A waste of
perfectly good pickles, Anya thought, stomach grumbling.
Overhead, a flexible dryer duct threaded through the
unfinished ceiling. Boxes of Christmas decorations lined the
walls. Old dresses, carefully encased in plastic bags, were
neatly hung from lengths of overhead pipe. A scarred
workbench, which must have belonged to the old man, stood in
the corner, its tools stilled. This place was the vault of
the old woman's memories; no wonder the malevolent spirit
had found a home here, in all the dust and emotion of years.
Fertile ground for a wandering spirit.
"Another witch?" Something giggled from beneath the
"No, not another witch." Anya's salamander torque burned her
neck causing prickling sweat. The heat uncurled from the
torque around her neck, spiraled down her arm, and leaped
lightly to the steps. A fire spirit, a salamander, was
unleashed from the necklace. He shimmered with
semi-transparent amber light, large as a Rottweiler. Sparky
took the shape of the massive speckled salamanders found in
mountain streams, the monsters that mountain folks called
hellbenders. His size and shape were as mutable as flame,
but the hellbender was one of his favorite forms, although
Sparky modified even that shape to suit his needs or fancy.
Head as large as a shovel, body as thick as a tree, Sparky's
tail sizzled around Anya's knee, his tongue flicking into
the darkness. Sparky was invisible to most people, although
Katie could sense him and Brian could read the temperature
changes he invoked on his instruments. But Sparky was not
invisible to the thing under the stairs.
The spirit hissed. "Elemental."
"This is your last chance," Anya said. "Get out, now. Or I
will destroy you."
The spirit snarled: "Mine."
Anya sighed. Just once, she wanted one to go out easy. One
spirit that hadn't been aggravated and goaded beyond all
reason, one spirit to just go away when she told it to. Nice
and quiet, for a change.
She strode down the steps, Sparky flowing before her. Under
the steps, the spirit thumped against the risers as she
walked, trying to intimidate her. Anya ignored it,
descending with an even stride. She would not give it the
satisfaction of rattling her.
A board splintered, then broke. Anya stumbled, tripping over
the shards of wood. Sparky flung himself across the foot of
the stairs, breaking her fall. Her flashlight bounced down
the stairs, went dark, and rolled away in the darkness. She
landed in a tangle of hot salamander skin and her own boots
on the cold concrete floor, unhurt in the glass and pickle
juice, but irritated. The only light remaining was Sparky's
glow, dimmer and more diffuse than the flashlight.
The thing under the stairs snickered.
The doorknob at the top of the stairs rattled, wouldn't
open. The sound of something heavy striking the door echoed
like a gunshot. Jules' voice filtered down through the door:
"Anya? You okay?"
"I'm fine," she answered, picking herself off the floor and
brushing glass from her hands and jeans. "Leave us be."
Sparky orbited around her, a curling mass of light. He
hissed, a sound that rolled the loose, mottled skin on his
body. Fernlike gills on the sides of his head fanned out,
primitive and fearsome. He cast enough light for her to see
by, a soft gold light of distant fire.
The basement spirit was stronger than she'd thought. She
imagined the owner of the house facing this thing alone, and
bristled at its arrogance. Power like that could have
crippled or killed the old woman.
As for what it had done to the pickles... blasphemy.
Anya rounded the corner to peer under the stairs and her
breath snagged in her throat. The knot of darkness under the
steps radiated cold, smacking her as if she'd just opened a
door and stepped outside into winter. Her warm breath
steamed as she exhaled, hands on her hips, staring at the
old-fashioned soda pop machine underneath the stairs. It was
scarred and dented, painted with a picture of a perky woman
in sunglasses and a headscarf holding a glass bottle.
Flowing white script exhorted customers to "Drink up!" The
coin slot stated that pop was ten cents. This forgotten
antique would have been worth a fortune at auction, but it
also made a very nice home for a malevolent spirit.
Anya kicked the picture of the smiling woman. "You. Get the
hell out of there." She was tired, smelled like pickles, and
was beginning to get pissed. She had an early shift in the
morning and should be safely in dreamland, not beating up on
a pop machine.
The machine spat out a glass soda bottle. It exploded
against the floor like a small grenade. Anya jumped back.
Cold, sticky fluid splashed over her boot.
Within the machine, she could hear more glass bottles
ratcheting into position. Sparky shoved her behind the
workbench as a volley of glass shattered against the
cinder-block wall and the raw wood surface of the bench.
Bolts and screws clattered off the table in a metallic rain,
plinking as they dripped to the floor. Sparky's head peeped
over a drill press, tail lashing.
Anya growled. "Enough of these tantrums."
When the machine clicked empty, Anya and Sparky leaped from
behind the workbench to charge the machine. The machine
rattled, rocking back and forth. From the corner of her eye,
Anya could see that it wasn't plugged in... the cord lay
coiled on the floor. Sparky snapped at the cord that
slithered to life, curling across the cement.
Anya slapped her left hand to the cold surface of the
machine, pressed her right to her heart. She felt a familiar
heat in her chest, felt it burn in her throat. She breathed
it in, allowing it to rise and suffuse her, feeling it
crackle in her hands as the unearthly glow washed over her.
Her amber aura expanded, winged out like a cloak, and a hole
opened above her heart. The flame inside her roared,
reaching for the pathetic, pickle-smashing ghost.
She could feel the cold spirit in the soda machine, cool and
slippery as liquid. Ghost-fire flickered at her fingertips
and she could feel the small, petulant shape of the spirit
in the dark. Anya drew the ghost into her chest with an
inhalation, feeling it icy against her throat. Like
swallowing an ice cube whole, she felt it stick, melt, and
glide down into her empty chest. Devouring it, she allowed
the fire in her heart to immolate it, burning it to ash.
She stepped back, breathing deep. Her body steamed in the
chill, and she smelled burnt things. Her incandescing aura
settled around her like a second skin, then dwindled.
Sparky, victorious over the limp electrical cord on the
floor, slithered to Anya's side. He faded to a fine golden
mist, curling up over her arm and solidifying around her
neck once again. Shivering, Anya was grateful for his warmth.
Anya was the rarest type of medium: a Lantern. Spirits were
inexorably drawn to her, moths to the flame. That was common
enough among most types of mediums. Ordinary mediums could
allow spirits to wear their skins at will, to use their
voices, their hands; to surrender their bodies to another
spirit. Anya shuddered to imagine allowing a spirit that
kind of control.
But Lanterns were unusual. She had never met another
Lantern. She only knew the term from her conversations with
Ciro. It was not a role she relished playing. Katie had said
that Anya had the blessing of fire upon her. Like a human
bug zapper, she took spirits into her inner elemental light
and devoured them, incinerating them. She hated the cold
touch of spirits in her throat; they tasted hard and
metallic, like water with too much iron. After devouring
one, it seemed that days would pass before she could feel
truly warm again.
"Couldn't go easy, could you?" Anya bent to retrieve her
flashlight, then viciously kicked the winking woman on the
soda machine. Her boot left a scuff mark on the woman's chin.
The front of the machine sprang open like a refrigerator
door, startling her. Skin prickling, she shined her
flashlight into the metal void, swallowing hard.
At first, she thought it was a doll stuffed inside the
machine, curled in the fetal position. But she was not to be
that lucky tonight. Blood pounded in her ears. Closer
inspection showed the desiccated corpse of a child, dry as a
milkweed husk. Tattered lace at the hem of a dress moved,
disturbed by Anya's breath. Plastic barrettes clasped braids
in the child's black hair. Leather sneakers the size of
Anya's hand were curled up against the wall of the machine.
The girl had clearly been here for decades, missing and
forgotten. Perhaps a game of hide-and-seek gone wrong.
Perhaps a homicide. There was no way to know, now.
Anya wiped her fingerprints from the front of the door with
her sleeve, watching her arm shake. She didn't want the
police to know she'd been here. It would raise too many
questions. DAGR would have to notify the police. They had
better cover for her, not reveal that she had been here. She
worried about what the shock of this discovery would do to
the old pickle woman who was afraid to do her laundry in the
basement... if she was innocent of putting the girl in the
Dimly, she still heard pounding on the door above. Finally,
it splintered away, and footsteps thundered down the broken
"Watch the step!" she called, too late. Max jammed his foot
in the breach and fell half through the stairs. Jules tried
to reel him in, reaming him out for going first.
Anya stared at her feet. She reeked of pickles. Her hands
were sticky with decades-old cola, and her hair was peppered
And now, a dead child. Not a good night.
She stared, blinking at the ceiling, vowing to stop
answering DAGR's calls. DAGR's calls always led to strange
truths, and she was tired of digging for them.