"Exciting Intersection of Magic and Science in Bickles's SPARKS"
Reviewed by RaMonda Horton
Posted September 27, 2010
Death by spontaneous human combustion? Yeah, right! Well
that is how Laura Bickle introduces us into the world of
arson investigator and psychic medium, Anya Kalinczyk, the
heroine of her latest urban fantasy SPARKS.
Anya is charged with uncovering the mystery that lies behind
the fiery death of Jasper Bernard. Jasper was an elderly
Detroit man who found a way to use his knowledge of black
magic and ancient artifacts to travel back and forth through
several astral planes. His death opens up the doorway to a
supernatural battle that will have alarming implications for
the spirit and physical world. And in order for the battle
to be won, Anya must face off with Hope Solomon. Hope is a
celebrity psychic who wants to use the knowledge that Jasper
acquired to collect thousands of souls. The collection of
these souls and Hope's plan to store these souls in a
Pandora's-Box-Genie-In-A Bottle sort of fashion will unleash
Hell on Earth and make Hope more powerful than Lucifer
himself. Aided by the DAGR, a kooky bunch of ghostbusters
and scientists, her salamander familiar-Sparky, and
Charon-angel of death, Anya will travel to hell and back to
defeat Hope and protect the balance of good and evil.
Bickle does a great job of transporting the reader back and
forth between the city of Detroit and the psychic planes she
explores in the book. The characters are smart and funny.
SPARKS is a fast paced and entertaining read.
Learn more about Sparks
WITHOUT A TRACE...
Anya Kalinczyk is the rarest type of psychic medium, a
Lantern, who holds down a day job as an arson investigator
with the Detroit Fire Department—while working 24/7 to
exterminate malicious spirits haunting a city plagued by
unemployment and despair. Along with her inseparable
salamander familiar, Sparky, Anya has seen, and even
survived, all manner of fiery hell—but her newest case
sparks suspicions of a bizarre phenomenon that no one but
her eccentric team of ghost hunters might believe:
spontaneous human combustion.
After fire consumes the home of elderly Jasper Bernard,
Anya is stunned to discover his remains—or, more precisely,
a lack of them; even the fiercest fires leave some trace of
their victims—and she is sure this was no naturally
occurring blaze. Soon she’s unearthed a connection to a
celebrity psychic who preys on Detroit’s poor, promising
miracles for money. But Hope Solomon wants more—she’s
collecting spirits, and in a frantic race against time,
Anya will face down an evil adversary who threatens her
fragile relationship with her lover, her beloved Sparky’s
freshly hatched newts, and the wandering souls of the
Death, with a chaser of magic.
Anya wrinkled her nose as the odors burned into her
sinuses. Unmistakable, they awakened a primal fight-or-
flight response in the most primitive part of her brain.
She forced one foot in front of the other, her fingers
tightening in a sweaty grip on the handle of her the tool
kit. Any ordinary person would have license to flee from
those smells, but Anya had no choice. She was not ordinary.
And this was her job.
The hoarder’s house smelled like burned bacon, fetid and
greasy. It clung to the stacks of newspapers littering the
kitchen table, the bundles of National Geographic magazines
and cardboard boxes stacked along the walls on the scarred
black and white linoleum. Dishes in the sink were coated in
dried-on lemon dish soap; the garbage reeked of coffee
grounds. . . but all the other odors were overwhelmed by
the stink seeping through the peeling wallpaper.
A knot of cops milled at the back kitchen door. As if
some invisible ward prevented them from crossing the
threshold, the uniforms remained steadfastly outside, their
voices kept low, thick with tension. There was none of the
wisecracking and bravado gawkers usually brought.
Transfixed, they didn’t want to walk away from the scene,
but were unwilling to enter the house.
Someone had cracked open the window over the kitchen
sink, allowing a breeze to creep through. Anya reached over
the dishes to pry it open further, hoping to dispel the
odor. A hazy film covering the glass obscured her
reflection. Her latex-covered fingers smeared the glass,
thick with grease. In spite of her gloves, the slickness of
it made her skin crawl.
Anya tipped her head. A fringe of chin-length sable hair
curtained her amber-colored eyes. Her hair had burned off
six months ago, and was now at that annoying stage where it
still wasn’t long enough to pull back into a ponytail. She
shoved it behind her ear with the back of her clean hand.
The motion revealed a copper torque peeking out over the
edge of her hazmat suit. The metal salamander curled around
her neck, grasping its tail in a deep "V" above her
collarbone. The collar always felt warmer than her skin,
pulsing with its own presence. The salamander torque was
always most active around death; she was certain it smelled
the death as acutely as she did. For the moment, she
"Thought you’d enjoy this one, Kalinczyk."
Captain Marsh dumped a tackle box of tools on the
kitchen table. Even in these stiflingly close quarters, her
supervisor wore his firefighter’s coat open over an
immaculately-pressed white shirt and tie.
Anya’s brow arched. "Something stunk, and you
automatically thought of me?"
Marsh’s mahogany face creased in a grin. "I thought it
might have spooked some of the other fire investigators."
He crossed his arms over his crisp shirt. "But
seriously. . . we need for this to be kept low-key. Quiet."
She glanced at the cluttered, humble surroundings, brow
creasing. There was nothing in the scene that suggested to
her a need for secrecy. Sadness, perhaps. . . but not
secrecy. And she was certain none of the others could taste
the sharp tang of magick in the air, distinct as
ozone. "What’s the back story?"
"This house belongs to a seventy-two-year-old man,
Jasper Bernard. A neighbor called 911 because she saw
strange lights and thought burglars might have broken in."
Anya gestured to the kitchen table with her chin,
looking askance. "Does he have anything worth stealing?
Anything that could be found in this mess?"
"Yeah, well." Marsh spread his hands. "I guess she could
tell that something was different. Police tried the front
door, and no one answered. All the doors and windows were
locked. When they peered into the windows with their
flashlights, they saw evidence of fire in the living room,
and broke in."
"They saw fire?"
Marsh shook his head. "No. Just char and ash. The fire
was long cold. So was Bernard."
"What did Bernard die of? Smoke inhalation?" Anya
envisioned an old man dead on his couch of a fire started
by a forgotten lit cigarette. As far as ways to die went,
suffocating in one’s sleep was not the worst way to go.
Anya had seen much worse. Though she knew the official
coroner’s report wouldn’t be available for a few days, a
preliminary opinion would help her move forward with the
Marsh nervously scrubbed his palm over the scar crossing
his bald head. Marsh was rarely nervous, but Anya
recognized the unconscious gesture. "No."
"Burns?" Anya winced. There were only two ways to die in
a fire: burning or asphyxiation. Burns were the worst.
"You gotta see this for yourself." He jabbed a thumb at
the six-panel door off the kitchen. It stood ajar, and only
cool shade stretched beyond. "That way."
Heat had lifted the paint into bubbles that burst like
blisters under her fingertips. She pushed the door open,
sucked in a breath as her eyes adjusted to the half-
The living room was a packrat’s nest. Above, a bare
light bulb had melted in its ceiling socket. Painted-shut
windows had been forced open, allowing gray light to ribbon
through bent blinds, over pressboard shelves warping under
the weight of books. Anya scanned the titles, but most of
them were in incomprehensible Latin. Sculpted shag
carpeting was mottled under the weight of years of dirt and
too few vacuumings. Unopened mail rattled on a dusty
credenza, envelopes curling in a breeze that failed to
chase out the bitter reek of death.
As disorganized as the room appeared, the scene was
surprisingly intact from a forensic viewpoint. No scorch
marks blackened the walls. It was unlikely that someone
could have actually died of burns or smoke inhalation in a
room showing so little damage. Only a swirl of carbon smoke
stained the ceiling, surrounding the melted light bulb over
Anya frowned. Maybe the old man had a heart attack.
Maybe he’d died of cancer. Or drug overdose. Surely, the
autopsy would reveal something other than burns or smoke
inhalation. . . there simply wasn’t a big enough fire here
to traumatize a mobile adult.
The threadbare couch faced away from Anya, toward a
fireplace. The fireplace mantel sagged under an odd
assortment of objects: a clutch of brass keys dripping over
the edge like the limbs of a spider; a Tiki god beaming
over his domain of clutter; a tarnished sword with an
elaborate gilt hilt. Smoke had stained a collection of
bottles in various sizes and shapes. They were now all the
color of gray quartz, nearly concealing their contents: the
gleam of bones suspended in liquid.
Anya’s skin crawled. These things smelled like magick,
like rust and salt. Old magick. Not the new, ozone tang of
fresh-brewed magick that she had smelled in the kitchen.
Anya picked her way around the couch for a better look, and
nearly stepped into the remains of Jasper Bernard.
Not that there was much of him. A greasy black burn mark
spread from the middle couch cushion to the floor,
scorching the carpet. A pair of feet in black socks and
blue slippers extended from the bottom of the stain.
Squinting, she could make out a few finger bones from a
right hand at the perimeter of the scorch, but nothing else
of Jasper Bernard remained. The burn had scorched through
the carpet, leaving white ash on the unmarked hardwood
floor. In front of the slippers sat an unharmed TV tray, a
microwaved dinner preserved in its compartmentalized plate.
Meatloaf and green beans, from the looks of it.
She rocked back on her heels, breathing: "Holy shit."
This wasn’t a natural fire. It wasn’t even a possible fire.
Human bodies didn’t burn like that, not even when they were
doused with gasoline and set ablaze in cars. There was
always something left behind. Nothing burned like that,
even in crematories. Crematories had to physically
pulverize the remains to get them into a box. . . where the
hell had Bernard’s remains disappeared to?
She knelt to stare incredulously at Bernard’s feet.
Through a hole in his sock, she could see pink flesh. The
intense heat that that had reduced his body to ash hadn’t
touched the lint underneath his perfectly-intact toenail.
Marsh’s steps scuffed up dust from the carpet behind
her. "Is this what I think it is?"
If it was, it was the Holy Grail of fire investigation.
She hedged. She hadn’t seen enough of the scene to be
positive. "I don’t know for sure. We need to collect more
evidence, but it has all the hallmarks of it."
"Of what?" He pressed harder, leaning forward on his now-
dusty spit-shined shoes. He didn’t want to be the first one
to say it, the first one to step off the cliff into an
She swallowed, kept her voice so low that the uniforms
eavesdropping past the open door couldn’t
hear: "Spontaneous human combustion."
Silence stretched. She couldn’t believe she’d said it.
Marsh gestured to the open windows. "That’s what the
uniforms are saying. That’s what the press would say if
they knew." He looked down at the hole in the carpet where
a human had once sat, preparing to eat his TV dinner. "Find
the truth. Disprove it."
She rocked back on her heels, voice dry. It was too soon
to even begin conjecture, and she resented being
pushed. "Sir. I haven’t even begun to seriously consider
any theory. . . "
"Find a reasonable explanation for this. Take the time
and resources you need, but make this go away." His gaze
drifted out the window to the darkening skyline. Somewhere
out there a siren whined. "Detroit doesn’t need any more
things that go bump in the night."
Marsh was right. Anya stared down at the cinders,
thinking that Marsh didn’t know half the things that
wandered unseen in the city. If anyone else really knew
what she knew. . . she smothered a shudder. Ordinary people
had no idea of what lay underneath the skin of Detroit’s
Anya wasn’t ordinary, much as she wished she were.
Her attention wandered over Bernard’s collection of
bottles. By the look of things, Bernard hadn’t been
Voices rattled from the kitchen door in argument. Marsh
peered through the bent blinds, muttered: "The press is
"News van just pulled up outside beside the squad cars.
Someone must have tipped them off," Marsh growled, heading
for the door. "Work the scene. I’ll handle the press."
The wooden door clicked shut behind him, leaving Anya
alone with Jasper’s ashes.
She pulled her camera from her kit, aimed it toward the
door. In the snap of the shutter and the bleed of light
through the blinds, she gathered her thoughts as she
circled the scene. She blotted out the voices filtering
into the room, listening to the creak of heat-warped
floorboards underfoot as she minced through Jasper’s
clutter. Making sure each frame of the last shot overlapped
with the next, her camera lens devoured the images of a
sad, ordinary life: bills stacked in piles; a wall clock
with glow-in-the-dark numerals tapping out the time; a roll
of curling stamps; a cardboard box full of record albums,
the vinyl curled from the heat.
To say nothing of the extraordinary things. . .
augmented through the camera lens, Anya’s eyes swept over
an elaborately-enameled terra cotta figure of a Fu Dog with
a broken paw; a plastic zipper bag full of antique coins
that seethed like scales when she shook it. A wand of
selenite crystal, long as her forearm and slender as her
finger, rested on a battered desk, shimmering in the
sunlight. A filigreed silver bottle the size of her hand
was attached to a stopper on a tarnished chain. To Anya’s
sensitive eye, these things swirled under a layer of dust,
pulsing of mysteries of the ages and magick.
Anya peered through the gap in the blinds. On the
street, she could see Marsh looming over a man with a
minicam, while cops were stringing yellow tape. The man
with a minicam looked persistent, beads of sweat from his
well-gelled hair dripping down his neck and onto his
expensive jacket. Anya thought she recognized him as one of
the evening newscasters.
The reporter looked at the blinds, like a bloodhound
sensing movement. Anya retreated into the shade of the
room, but not before the blinds scraped the bottom of the
In an old house of this era, marble window sills were
common, white stone skin crossed by black veins. But
something about the pattern caught her eye, and she gently
tugged up the blind cord.
A fine line of salt had been sprinkled on the window
ledge, where it had barely been disturbed by breeze.
Anya frowned. She was no witch or magick-worker, but
Anya knew a ward when she saw it. Bernard had been afraid
of something magickal, of something magickal getting into
his house. . . though there were plenty of magickal things
already in his house.
It would take forever to process this scene, and to
guess at which of those things might have gotten out of his
control. . . enough to kill him.
Aiming the lens at the ceiling, Anya shot a picture of
the light bulb over the couch. The bulb troubled her. In
any normal fire, the heat would cause the glass to break or
warp. If it warped, it would twist toward the source of the
greatest heat, the ignition point of the fire.
But this bulb dripped straight down over the couch. Like
a bead of sweat on a runner’s nose, a piece of glass had
frozen in mid-dribble, pointing to Bernard’s remains.
The fire could not have started there. Could not.
Anya’s finger cramped on the shutter switch as she
snapped the greasy black stain from every angle. The
ceiling had a sheen, as if it had been freshly painted, and
she squinted at it. Nothing in this house had been painted
in years. Could it be the trace of an accelerant, an exotic
chemical trace that hadn’t burned cleanly away, as gasoline
or propane might?
The same gleam glistened on the underside of the TV tray
table, snagging her attention. Anya squinted at the sheen,
touched it. It was still warm, smelling like candle wax and
raw meat. Startled, she realized that it was the source of
the unusual smell she’d discovered when she’d entered the
house. This residue was what covered the kitchen windows,
filmed over the plaster walls. It wasn’t an accelerant, at
least, not in the conventional sense.
Fat. It was Bernard’s burned body fat, evaporated and
settled onto his surroundings.
Anya’s stomach churned. She’d only read about this kind
of thing in textbooks. Called the "wick effect," a human
body theoretically could smolder for hours, feeding on its
own fat. Theoretically.
But where was the original spark? What could have
ignited the man in the first place?
Her gaze passed over the untouched dinner in its tray,
moved to the fireplace. That would be the obvious place to
look. On her hands and knees, she shone a flashlight up
into the firebox. Through her gloved hands, the hearth felt
cool as stone, colder than the TV table closer to the body.
This wasn’t the source. But she smelled the bitter tang
of magick here, more strongly. After carefully recording
the condition of the firebox and hearth with her camera,
Anya pulled a pair of stainless-steel barbecue tongs from
her kit and dug into the blackened ashes of the hearth.
A lot of paper had been burned here. Fragments flaked
away, irretrievable. Anya was amazed that Bernard ever
disposed of anything. Whatever this was, it must have been
important for him to destroy. From the grate, she plucked a
corner of an envelope, frowned. Bernard seemed to have
stockpiled all of his junk mail. With tweezers, she pulled
a scrap of green paper from envelope’s remains.
A check. The watermark was unmistakable. In the upper
left hand corner, a name was legible: Miracles for the
Masses. The address was for a location in Detroit’s
She placed the scraps into an empty paint can to go to
the lab for analysis and continued her poking around in the
ash. Her tongs rang against something with a note like a
From the grate, Anya pulled the neck of a shattered
bottle, charred black. It was smaller than a wine bottle,
stoppered with an ornamental silver seal. Whatever it
contained was obscured by the carbon black skin coating it.
She turned the broken edge toward the light.
She’d expected it to be an empty vessel, for water or
wine. Or perhaps a glass prison like the ones on the
mantel, holding preserved fragments of bones. But looking
into the darkness of the bottle was like looking into a
geode: shining, rock crystal teeth glinted back at her,
seared obsidian-black from the fire.
Around her throat, something fluttered. Anya’s hand
slipped up to the metal collar around her neck. A warm
shape inside the metal shifted, peeled away from her neck.
Delicate salamander toes unfurled and marched down her
shoulder, as the metal hissed and released a living
creature. Taking the shape of a hellbender, a fire
elemental salamander leapt to the hearth, growling at the
magick-soaked bottle in the grate. His tongue flickered
into the black of the firebox, and he incandesced with an
"Sparky," she hissed. She had no fear that Marsh or any
other living creature could see him; Sparky was invisible
to ordinary humans. But Sparky only bothered to wake
himself up under three conditions: when it suited his
preternatural whims, when ghosts were around, and when
danger was near.
Anya swallowed. As if handling a piece of radioactive
debris, Anya placed the fragment of the bottle on the
hearth. Sparky stalked toward it, his feathery gill-fronds
flaring. His tongue flickered over the carbon on its
Anya held her breath, watching for Sparky’s reaction.
She knew he smelled the magick on it, too. But she had no
way of knowing how dangerous that broken bottle really was.
For all she knew, it could be a magickal time bomb. . . a
bomb that blew up Jasper Bernard. A bomb that could still
Sparky turned around, presented his speckled rump to the
artifact. He scraped his back feet at the ash disdainfully,
as if he were a cat burying a turd in a litter box.
Anya rolled her eyes. The salamander couldn’t speak, but
he managed to be expressive, just the same. Perhaps the
bottle wasn’t a source of danger; perhaps the elemental was
busy expressing himself and being a pain in the ass.
Or. . . Anya looked around the room, back at the grease
stain that had once been Jasper Bernard.
Anya whispered at the stain: "You still here, Bernard?"
Perhaps Sparky was picking up on something else that had
disturbed his nap. Perhaps Jasper Bernard hadn’t gone
peacefully to the afterworld, and was still hanging around.
If so, she could talk to him, get the real story of how
he’d managed to dissolve himself from this plane of
existence and leave just his foot and slipper behind.
A translucent orb welled up in the grease stain: a
balding head and bespectacled eyes. Anya noted that a piece
of electrical tape held one side of the glasses together.
"Jasper Bernard?" Anya asked quietly. She didn’t want to
startle him. The freshly-dead were always skittish as feral
cats, and she expected Bernard to be no different. She
could feel Sparky slithering behind her legs, and she stood
on his tail to keep him from crawling forward and scaring
the ghost off.
"Everyone calls me Bernie. You. . . you can see me?"
"Yes, I can see you."
The phosphorescent eyes shifted right and left, and
panic twitched through his voice. "The cops didn’t see me.
The firemen didn’t see me. How can you see me?"
Anya crouched beside the stain in the floor, conscious
of Sparky straining beside her. "I’m a medium. . . of
sorts. I can see spirits and talk with them."
Bernard’s eyes narrowed in assessment. "I’ve met
mediums. You’re more than that."
Anya chewed on her lower lip. She didn’t want to panic
Bernie, but she didn’t have time to construct a plausible
lie. "I’m a Lantern. Ghosts are drawn to me." Anya
deliberately left the other part out, the part about how
she could destroy what remained of his spirit with little
more than a breath. Spirits came to her, moths to the
flame, and—if needed—she incinerated them.
The frightened eyes peered over a bifocal glass line at
the salamander. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Um. This is Sparky. He’s my friend." My friend who
would also like to have you for lunch.
Sparky growled at him.
"A salamander? How did you ever tame one of those?"
Curiosity and a note of avarice lit in the ghost’s voice.
"I, uh, have had him since I was a child." Again, not
the whole truth, but Bernard didn’t need to know the whole
truth. Nor could Sparky be really considered "tame." Anya
eyed him suspiciously. "What do you know about salamanders?"
Bernie’s fingertips steepled above the oily black
pool. "I’m a collector, of sorts."
Anya glanced at the bottles over the fireplace. "A
"A purveyor of magickal artifacts."
Anya protectively angled her hip before Sparky. "That’s
why this place stinks of magick."
Haughty eyebrows wrinkled over the glasses. "My house
does not stink."
"Bernie." Anya crouched before the spirit, mindful not
to disturb the grease stain with her knees. Bernie might
not have fully digested the knowledge that he was dead, and
she didn’t want to send what was left of his personality
into a tailspin before she could extract some useful
information. "Is that what happened to you? Bad magick?"
"I remember. . . the fire." Bernard’s lower lip turned
down and began to dribble off the side of his face. The
force of the recollection was beginning to disincorporate
She’d have to work quickly. "Do you remember what
started it?" Anya pressed him. "Were you burning something
in the grate? Smoking?"
Despite Bernie’s magickal surroundings, experience had
taught Anya to seek the most mundane explanations first.
The ghost shook his head. "It wasn’t me. It was her."
The eyes behind the glasses rolled upward. "Wait. If you
can see me, can she see me?"
"Can who see you?"
Ghostly fingers gnawed at the edge of the stain.
Bernard’s eyes flicked to the ceiling. "Oh, shit. . . "
The ceiling opened up, a vortex of wind reaching toward
the floor, cold as the breath of winter. The vortex didn’t
disturb any of the physical surroundings, but it reached
for Bernie as surely as a child rooted through a toy box
for a favorite plaything. Like a marionette jerked on its
strings, Bernie’s ghostly body was yanked out of the floor.
His body, clad in pajamas and a chenille robe, flailed in
resistance to the invisible force.
Anya lunged forward, instinctively reaching for the
ghost. Sparky grasped Bernie’s pant leg with his teeth,
growling. The salamander pulled back with all his might,
struggling to ground Bernie to the ruined floor. But the
old man was rising like a helium balloon, and Anya didn’t
know how much longer they could hold him. The reek of sour
magick, like expired milk, made her gag.
Bernie pedaled in the air, his fingers beginning to
char. Ghostly flames licked under the collar of his robe,
and the chenille burst into flame.
"Don’t let her find the vessel!" Bernie shouted.
The artifacts dealer was yanked from Sparky’s grip and
fizzled away into the ether. The hole in the ceiling closed
up, leaving the room ringing in silence.
Anya landed on her butt on the stained carpet, slack-
jawed. Frigid air steamed from her mouth. She’d seen ghosts
disincorporate as the result of exorcisms, or willingly,
when they chose to walk into the afterlife. But she’d never
seen anything like this, nothing so violent. The ghost had
been sucked up like an ant in a vacuum cleaner, but. . . to
"Bernie?" she called, into the half-light of the room.
No one answered her.
Sparky waddled to the stain covering Bernie’s ruined
carpet. He circled it twice, and began scratching it with
his back feet, as if he were burying another dead thing.
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