Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
We rose in unison. Neil searched again with the sweeping beam of his Maglite. “I think we got all of them, but I can’t be sure in the dark. I’ll scout the area at first light and see—”
“Sshh,” I shushed him. “Do you hear that?”
The noise wasn’t from either the dismantled radio or the spirit box in the coat, but from back in the direction we’d come, down by the brook. Occasional splashes interrupted the chillingly human sounds. The Halloween CD of the night before had nothing on this creepy cacophony.
“It sounds like someone’s crying,” Neil murmured. “Not sobbing, more of a wailing.”
My lungs seized up but on the last puff of air I expelled the name, “The bean nighe.”
“What do you want to do?” Neil lobbed the decision firmly into my court.
Confronted by the ghost we’d been sent to deal with, I wanted nothing more than to run screaming in the opposite direction. “According to the stories, just the fact that she’s here means someone is going to die.”
Neil didn’t say anything as he waited for me to make up my mind.
I wouldn’t be much of a ghost hunter if I ran the other way. Then again, she might have been the eerie voice that uttered die. It was her job, after all. I doubted she intended to scare us to death and while she was far from harmless, she wasn’t malevolent either.
“I’m not sucking on her breast,” I told him in a firm voice.
“Good to know.”
We moved toward the brook. The lament grew louder. Despite the parka, I shivered. The wind cut through the fabric and the cries through my flesh as though the wail wanted to pierce me deeper, right down to the bone. I hung onto Neil for all I was worth and we took the last few steps to reach the edge of the stream.
The darkness hid her at first. The noise seemed to come from all around us, making it impossible to pinpoint the place of origin. One dark shape could have been a bush or a fallen rock as easily as a Scottish legend.
I heard Neil suck in a sharp breath and knew that he’d spotted her. I turned my head in the direction he faced.
The creature was crouched on a rock in the middle of the stream, her mournful cries in time to the splashing of the water. From our angle above, it was impossible to discern any features other than her arms, which were thrust out before her glistening wetly in the moonlight. Pale hands flashed in the water like silverfish as she worked tirelessly in time to her dirge.
My gaze fixed on the garment before her. It was white and long, though clouds of reddish brown floated in the stream above it. Patches of blood lifted from the cloth made the clean water run murky.
“Oh my God,” I breathed. “The story is true.”
She was sent to wash the blood from the death shroud of one doomed to die.
“Whose is it?” Neil rasped and I couldn’t be sure he knew he’d spoken aloud. “Who is she predicting will die?”
The bean nighe didn’t react to our presence, just went on with her washing, and with her creepy song.
“I’m going down there.” Neil pulled free of my grasp.
“You can’t,” I hissed at him. “Neil, don’t!”
But he slipped down the bank toward the edge of the water.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh mother puss bucket frigging shit,” I chanted, because there wasn’t anything else I could do except watch him creep up on the supernatural harbinger of death.
He was ten feet away from the water’s edge when the song stopped and she whirled with preternatural speed and looked right at him.
Neil froze. I froze.
She vanished into thin air.
Unanimously, we decided to sleep in the car. Leo and Sylvia hadn’t reacted much when I told them about the bean nighe. I didn’t fault them. We were all worn past the point of exhaustion and fear, where even an imminent death threat didn’t seem all that worrisome. At the same time, no one wanted to be alone.
I never thought it was possible to miss Marty’s POS camper, but facing a night in the clown car with four adults and an overgrown dog, I managed.
Sylvia, the smallest of us, offered to take the driver’s seat and Leo moved up front leaving us the backseat and Atlas for company. Neil hadn’t said a word, just patted his lap. I proceeded to use him as a pillow before the dog could, and forced my weary brain to blankness.
I awoke to dog breath and severe dry mouth, along with that stale sensation that was trademark property to a schnapps hangover. Water, I needed water, preferably boiled and strained through coffee grounds. Maybe I’d just go drown myself in the river. It seemed like less effort.
My whole body stiffened at the thought, as though the powers that be would take me up on it. Or punish me. I worked my mouth and formed enough saliva to swallow hard. Better to not be glib about death under the circumstances.
Both Leo and Sylvia had reclined their seats. Sylvia was curled up like a fairy princess, blonde hair spilled over her face. Leo slept with his mouth open, mumbling occasionally. Atlas had climbed onto the seat with me, a nearly impossible squeeze. He snored in my ear like a grizzly with a sinus infection.
Neil’s hands were in my hair, sifting idly through the strands. Rolling onto my back, I dislodged the dog and turned to face him. He stared out the window, obviously lost in thought, petting me as if by reflex. Better me than the dog, but still.
Neil opened his door and Atlas bounded out, found a bush and lifted his leg. Neil slipped out from underneath me, presumably to do the same in a more discrete manner. I sat up and stretched as much as the small car would allow. If we’d been thinking straight last night, we would have been better off in Leo’s car.
Of course no one had really been thinking much last night.
The bright light of day made the entire night before seem like a ghost story. Well technically it had been, but it was as though I remembered a scene from a movie, something far distant that had happened to someone else.
It was someone else who was going to die. Not me, not someone I loved. Hadn’t I reached my damn near death quota yet? Hadn’t Neil?
Maybe that was the point though. We’d both skirted death too many times and the reaper demanded his due.
A hive of bees swarmed in my brain and I couldn’t breathe. It was worse than having Atlas lying on my chest, as though my lungs were filling with wet cement. I scrambled out of the still open door and made it a few feet away from the car before the contents of my stomach roiled like a nest of greased snakes and swarmed up to greet the dawn.
Someone held back my hair and made low, soothing noises. Sylvia. No one else was so serene first thing in the morning. An eternity passed before the retching stopped and I was steady enough to lean back, though opening my eyes was too much effort.
“I’ve got her,” Neil said from somewhere nearby. “Come on Uncle Scrooge, let’s get you inside.”
He got me to my feet and wrapped an arm around me to keep me there. I did my best not to breathe on him as we stumbled one step at a time back to the house.
“I’ll get the coffee going,” Leo murmured.
I wanted to laugh, to cry, to just thank them all for being there and caring enough to help me out when I needed it. I didn’t though. It sounded too final, like a goodbye speech.
Neil helped me over the bridge. My gaze darted down into the brook to the spot where we’d seen the bean nighe. What had he been planning to do, attack the creature?
“Don’t think about it.” His voice was gravely first thing in the morning and scraped along my frayed nerve endings. “We’ll deal with it later. Where do you want to go, bed or shower?”
“Shower,” I croaked.
The bathroom off our bedroom had been gutted the day before, so he urged me down on the side of the tub in the master suite. I expected him to leave, or even strip and get in the shower with me, but he simply crouched there.
“Neil?” Talking was getting easier.
If he heard me, he ignored me. He unzipped my jacket and threw it on the floor. Took off my sneakers one at a time and tossed them over his shoulder. They landed with a thud and a shower of dirt on Leo’s master suite closetless masterpiece. His hands shook as he reached for the buttons of my flannel shirt. His dark brows were drawn down in a deep vee of frustration and instinctively I knew he was seconds away from ripping the thing off me.
His reaction wasn’t about sex. Never mind that the inside of my mouth was rancid as last week’s leftover tuna noodle casserole. No, I knew my man’s desire and it was markedly absent. What he felt at the moment was a deep-coursing fear. I’d only seen him like this a few times before, early on in our marriage. He needed something desperately.
. I realized with a jolt. He needed to see me, to touch me and to assure himself I was unharmed. He’d been so quiet and internalized everything that had happened. Good thing I never kept anything to myself—that crap would rot a body from the inside out. Or in Neil’s case, shake a body to pieces.
I clasped his hands, held them still. “Let me. Neil, I’ll do it.”
His eyes weren’t tracking and for a second I worried he was going into shock, or maybe into the throes of a flashback. I thought about calling out to Sylvia or Leo, but dismissed the idea. He’d never hurt me in the grip of one. Usually he struggled to protect me from an old threat. The danger lay where he couldn’t see it, knocking my head into the ceramic tile floor or against the cast iron tub when he threw me out of the path of bullets only he could see.
His chest heaved and I could tell every breath he took was a struggle. He
fight it though. That was a good sign. Slowly, I released his hands and turned my own to the buttons. The shirt opened and I removed it, adding it to the growing heap on the floor. My tank top and bra followed.
I puzzled over whether I should stand up and undress all the way when he leaned into me. Still trembling, he pressed the side of his face against my chest until his ear was directly above my heart. The scrape of rough whiskers against my tender flesh made me shiver. Strong arms wrapped around me in a steel grip. A shuddering breath racked his big frame and a little of the tension I hadn’t even realized was building went out of him at the contact.
I stroked his hair, ran my fingers through the dark waves, smiled at the occasional sprinkle of silver-gray. On him gray hair looked distinguished, where I just look like a witch. Of course, Neil made anything look good.
“It’s okay. I’m all right. We’re safe.” I repeated the words like a mantra, unsure of whether I meant to convince him or myself. In the end did it really matter?
I soothed and petted him for endless moments. No way would I rush him back to reality before he was ready to deal with it. He didn’t cry. The tear from yesterday was an anomaly. But the thing about being a big tough guy was you still had feelings that needed to be dealt with, even if you refused to acknowledge them. Helplessness or fear in particular tore Neil apart. The bean nighe and the threat she implied embodied both.
Slowly, his breathing steadied to a more normal rhythm. The shaking subsided, though he didn’t let go. I kept up with my nonstop babble as well as the gentle scalp massage.
He looked up then, his expression rueful. “I—”
I put my fingers over lips. Had circumstances been different I would have kissed him. “Do me a favor, go get my toothbrush. Then call and check on the boys.”
It was a calculated risk, but I though what he needed was a bit of normalcy, not to dwell on what just happened. I always functioned better when I had a task, a to-do list.
Neil knew what I was about. “Go color by yourself until you can play nice, is it?”
The corner of his mouth kicked up. He squeezed me once more, just an embrace instead of a death grip. Then he rose and left.
I turned the tap on and adjusted the temperature. Stood, kicked off my jeans, socks and underwear and stepped under the spray.
Leo had some delicious smelling shampoo, mango maybe, and I helped myself to a healthy glob of it. Rinsed, repeated, and then scrubbed myself head to toe with the creamy almond-infused body wash. These small familiar cleansing rituals helped ground me.
Neil had brought my suitcase into the bathroom. I brushed my teeth thoroughly and then emptied the small bottle of mouthwash, getting the rancid taste of bile out of my mouth. Brushed again for good measure. Selected fresh jeans, a short-sleeved V-neck shirt and a hooded sweatshirt.
I combed my wet hair and twisted it into a knot on top of my head. Decided I wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to tackle the makeup. I had problems with that on my best days, never mind hung-over.
There was no sign of Neil in the bedroom and I padded out into the kitchen, following the scent of fresh coffee. Sylvia and Leo stood hunched over their respective cups, looking very much like two people who’d slept in a Prius. Still no Neil.
“He went up to the diner. Better cell reception there,” Leo answered my unspoken question.
I nodded and poured a mug of coffee. “We need to decide what to do next.”
Sylvia played with the charm on her silver necklace. She drew it back and forth with a
zip zip zip
. “What about Neil? Shouldn’t he be here for this conversation?”
“Um…?” Normally yes, I wanted my husband by my side, but I already knew what he wanted—to get the hell out of Dodge. He didn’t give a damn about a cold case. What he’d meant to be a distraction had taken a turn he couldn’t control and offered risks. Risks not just to him, but to all of us and our extended family too. I had no idea how far the bean nighe’s curse extended, but hoped the boys, Marty, Penny and May were safe. So that meant we, the four of us at the estate, were vulnerable.
I’d been in death’s crosshairs before and made it through. Not unscathed, but relatively whole. And the truth was, there was a ghost out there who was trying to communicate with me, maybe even help me catch her killer. The Grants might be my family, no matter how distant the relation or how slim the possibility. And I was brought up that when you can, you do for family. Give them your all.
Bottom line, Neil would say it wasn’t worth the risk and I’d say it was. We’d go back and forth, shouting and sulking. Having him here to argue the point wouldn’t help solve the case. And that I did want, to bring Aileene Grant’s killer to justice.
I squared my shoulders. Filled with determination, I said, “We’ll be better off if we have a plan to execute right away.”
“And do you have a plan?” Leo asked as he fiddled with the sugar bowl.
“Sort of. We’ve been hung up on the supernatural aspect here, the ghost, what they can and can’t do, what they want. It’s all we’ve had to go on. But Aileene Grant was a person and she was murdered. Taken from her parents and her daughter. If I were her, I’d want my killer to pay for what he did.”
“What about the bean nighe?” Sylvia asked.
I shook my head. “I can’t worry about her right now. There was no paranormal activity at all until Neil and I went to see the Grants. Our best bet is to question them.”
Leo frowned. “What are you going to ask them?”
“First, who my lookalike’s father is.”