If a man believes a curse can kill him, can it? Does it matter what he believes? For instance, would a gris-gris charm work against a religious man with greater efficiency than it would against an atheist?
Or are curses—and black magic and voodoo dolls—fantasy, since they violate known scientific principles?
I know the answer to the last question. And the answer is no, curses are not without power. I have watched healthy men and women suddenly die within twenty-four hours of having a Candomble priest destroy their fetishised images. No accidents, no diseases, no outside forces of any kind were involved—these people simply stopped living: wherever they were, whatever they were doing.
Though I do not understand the mechanics by which occult priests accomplish these feats, I do know that sympathetic magic exists and wields a force as real as the nuclear force binding our atoms. Science cannot explain it; in fact, by its narrow examination of the physical world, science defines magic as impossible.
The question is no longer whether or not magic is real. The question is: how does one acquire the power?
Tuesday, December 21, 8:38 p.m.
Languishing in traffic on the 101 freeway near Laurel Canyon Boulevard, I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel and wondered if I would ever crack the six-mile-per-hour mark again. The radio station switched to a news item.
“Police still have no suspects in yesterday’s brutal slaying of a seventeen-year-old girl in Sherman Oaks. The bizarre killing has sent a shockwave of fear through the community, prompting many residents to keep firearms close at hand. Van Nuys Chief of Detectives Sonja Reyes asks that anyone with information relating to this crime call the LAPD Hotline or this station.”
Reyes had taken my private call three hours earlier.
“No, Montero,” she said. “I can’t let you in on this one.”
She knew better than that. Still, she stalled. “I’ve put Hamilton and Gonzales on it.”
“Good. It will be a pleasure to work with them again.”
“They won’t like it.”
I waited. Silence can be an effective communication technique.
“Okay, if you want in, I can’t stop it,” she said. “But this is as high-profile as it gets. Don’t make us look bad in front of the press or any of the social media networks.”
“If I make a mistake, Chief, I’ll take myself out of the mix. You have my word.”
“So…do you know where Hamilton and Gonzales are now?” I asked.
“The Coroner’s, last I heard. They’ll be at the Mayor’s Christmas party from nine to ten-thirty.”
Either I had missed something or she had tossed out a non-sequitur. “The Mayor’s party? At the Houdini Mansion?”
“That’s right. He wants to be seen with the two lead investigators on such a sensational case. I assume you received an invitation?”
She knew I had. She also knew I rarely attended publicity events.
“If you want to talk to my detectives, do it then. I’m sure you’ll have a good time.”
“I don’t want you directly involved in the investigation until tomorrow morning. Leave my men alone after you talk to them tonight. I’ll have the case file emailed to you and Preston immediately.”
“One Adam Twelve.”
She disconnected. Efficient management was one of Reyes’s long suits.
And that was my reason for being jammed in gridlock on a Tuesday night, headed for the second most haunted building in the Los Angeles area.
Tuesday, December 21, 9:12 p.m.
In 1699, Chinese Emperor K’ang-hsi commanded my attendance at his forty-fifth birthday celebration. After becoming inebriated on cherry wine, he had pressed me to marry his youngest daughter. A double widower, I politely refused, though talking my way out of the Imperial request had required all the diplomatic delicacy I possessed.
No amount of savoir-faire would work with detectives Hamilton and Gonzales tonight.
I pulled up in front of the valet stand. The kid in the black pants and white shirt who opened my door probably did not shave yet.
“Sorry,” I told him, “but I want someone older.”
“I can park it,” he said, eyeballing the Maserati’s glowing interior.
I stepped past him, buttoning my jacket, two hundred dollar bills in my hand. I held them out to the young lady standing behind the dais.
“I’d like you to park it…uh, personally.”
Methuselah never stated he saw doubles of the people he knew during his 969-year life. Probably because there weren’t many human beings around in his time. In my seven-plus centuries, I have seen doppelgangers who were such exact duplicates of people I had known, I wondered if they truly were reincarnations.
But never once did any of them look upon me with recognition, though I stared at each of them meaningfully. I even approached one woman. We spent a wonderful evening together, but I determined without doubt she was not a re-born version of the same girl I had known four centuries earlier.
The woman in front of me presented a perfect example. Brown hair and green eyes, with a tall, hourglass figure, she looked like the living replica of Marguerite, my younger sister, gone now these six hundred years.
Memories cascaded. Smells, laughter, the faces of my childhood family—sleeping on a straw-covered floor with Margie, our baby brother James wedged between us.
The lovely valet looked me over slowly with a small smile. “No.”
“That’s not nearly enough,” she said, gesturing at the bills in my hand.
Dazed, I pulled out another three hundreds.
She shook her head, ran the tip of her tongue along her upper lip. She wore her hair piled atop her head and black-framed glasses sat on her delicately shaped nose. White teeth shone behind glossy dark pink lipstick. She looked like a librarian who preferred the erotic version of Sleeping Beauty to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
“You,” she said.
“I want you. Not money. Tonight. I’m off at one.”
“Don’t look so surprised. You’re hot.”
Nonplussed to have a vixen version of my little sister giving me the once-over, I concentrated.
“How about a thousand?”
“You’re saying no to me?”
For a moment, I could not speak. Of course I’m saying no, Margie, you’re my little sister! “You’re gorgeous,” I managed, “but I have a sweetheart.”
Gliding up close, bringing with her the clean scent of peach shampoo, she fiddled with my bow tie. “You didn’t get this quite right,” she said, undoing a perfect knot. “What’s your name?”
“Laura. You’re not wearing a ring, Sebastian.”
While she twisted my neckwear, I studied her face. High cheekbones, graceful lashes, Margie’s nose and chin. Although I had seen doubles of friends and acquaintances, I had never seen a replica of anyone from my families. The losses of the centuries washed through me. How I missed them! I longed to take this lovely woman in my arms and kiss her cheek, and welcome my sister back to life.
But her name was Laura, and Marguerite lived only in my memories, sepia-tinted by the lens of time.
“A man like you could have more than one girl,” Laura said. Deftly, she tugged the tie into shape, looked up. “You could have as many—what’s wrong?”
“Liar. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s an odd coincidence, but you look like my baby sister.”
“Oh.” She hesitated. “The way you say it…she’s dead?”
“Please don’t be. It was a long time ago.”
“I’m not your sister, Sebastian. You know that. We could have fun.”
“I really couldn’t.”
She pouted, pink lips puckered, an expression that had surely driven other men to their knees. “No one’s ever turned me down before.”
“I’ve no doubt of that.”
“Your girlfriend must be very special.”
“I am so not liking that,” Laura said.
Her hand slid down the sleeve of my jacket and took the bills I held, her fingers warm along the back of my hand. She handed me a ticket.
“I’ll park your car,” she whispered in my ear.
I strolled across the hard-packed dirt to the low wall fronting the property, pulling a pack of Dunhills and a lighter out of my jacket pocket. Looking up at the mansion silhouetted against the night sky, I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, careful of my embers in the hot wind.
The house wasn’t really the Houdini Mansion, at least not in the sense that Harry Houdini had ever lived in or owned it. Houdini died in 1926, and the original estate on this property burned down in 1959. This house was recently built on the same land.
The great magician did not own the mansion that went up in flames, either. Although he knew the owner of the original estate, and his wife lived in the guesthouse across the street after his death, there is no proof Houdini ever spent a single night in the original, main building.
Welcome to Hollywood, where investors fashion titanium connections from the thinnest of gossamer strands.
In spite of so tenuous a correlation to the famous illusionist, the house served as a focal point for the most notable spirits of the Canyon’s residents. Interestingly enough, Bess Houdini, in an effort to contact her dead husband, held séances on top of the only building in the city more haunted than this one. There is a story she succeeded once.
I loitered next to a meter-high sand-filled vase with flowers painted on it. Two couples in formal clothes stood to my right, waiting to have their invitations examined by a uniformed police officer. When they started up the steps, I buried my cigarette in the sand and strolled over.
“Evening, Officer Chen,” I said. “Gonzales and Hamilton here yet?”
“Evening, sir. Just arrived.” Her navy uniform shirt stood open at the collar and she had a Colt automatic nestled in her heavy leather holster. She glanced at my invitation. “Wait until you see Gonzales’s tuxedo.”
“That actually wouldn’t be bad.”
“H’m. What about Hamilton? Did he look happy to be here?”
“As happy as ever, sir.”
“Seen any ghosts?”
“No ghosts. But I did see a birthday girl and her friends.”
Chen’s dark eyes sparkled. Tonight’s party also celebrated the twenty-first birthday of the Mayor’s daughter Sofia. I had a terrible premonition.
“Has everybody seen it?”
“You mean the Popwire picture from a local club of a guy who looks a little like you kissing a girl who looks a lot like the Mayor’s daughter? I heard a few people at the station mention it.”
“We hadn’t even been introduced.”
“Your natural good looks probably overwhelmed her.” She handed my invitation back.
“So you’re doing comedy now.”
“The boys were talking about you before they went up,” she said, tilting her head toward the estate.
I slid the invitation into my pocket. “And?”
“They wish you weren’t in on this one.”
Tuesday, December 21, 9:18 p.m.
The estate sat in the wooded foothills of Laurel Canyon, an area favored by rock stars and drug cults when Hollywood still made movies in black and white. The drug cults stayed.
I ascended the winding steps. Voices echoed over the faint chime of holiday music. The familiar burning odor of someone taking their medical prescription scented the air. Santa Claus and Sativa. Happy Holidays.
Four days before Christmas, hot, unseasonal Santa Ana winds had temperatures soaring all over the San Fernando Valley. Arid gusts ruffled the tops of the trees on both sides of the staircase, causing the tall palms to sway with stately grace and bringing the thick smells of sage and chaparral.
The front door stood open. It was cooler inside, the air conditioner in full effect. I cruised through the living room, scanning. The Mayor talked with two men who were not Hamilton and Gonzales. A relief. I had no idea if the big man had seen the picture of his daughter and me, and wasn’t in a hurry to find out.
I headed for an open door near the back, sure the detectives would not stay inside if they were done with their meeting.
As I passed the fireplace, I glanced up at a black-and-white framed poster. Houdini stared down at the assembly, his hands shoved into the pockets of a heavy double-breasted suit, his expression severe. He probably wasn’t happy about being forced to stand watch over a party in someone else’s house.
I stepped into the heat again, onto a flagstone patio lighted with dozens of tiki torches, their flames bent sideways by the gusts. This courtyard, one of several around the estate, had two levels. Below, a pink brick wishing well covered in ivy stood at one end of the veranda, and at the other, a curving red stone bridge extended over a tiny lake and onto the dark lawn leading toward the back of the estate.
Several men leaned against a horseshoe-shaped bar, silhouetted by the bay laurel trees that were the canyon’s namesake. Detectives Hamilton and Gonzales stood among them, looking as happy as men waiting for rectal exams.
I took a place next to them downwind and lit a cigarette.
Steven Hamilton was the senior man. Caramel-skinned and lean, he cut an attractive figure in an inexpensive black single-breasted tuxedo.
A Sumo-sized Samoan bartender wearing a white dinner jacket trundled over.
“Tequila,” I told him. He set down a shot glass, filled it with Don Julio Blanco. I hoisted the drink, saluted the two detectives. “Thanks for meeting me.”
Alfred Gonzales resembled an NFL defensive end who had fattened up a bit after retiring. Shrek-like in a plaid coat with black silk lapels, black formal pants that were too tight at the ankles, and plain black shoes, he hurt the eye.
“So, Montero,” he said, “you’ve bought your way onto a homicide case again.” He gestured at the bartender, who poured him a shot.
“Detective Gonzales, I thought perhaps we could—”
“Must be nice to have that kind of cash.” Sweat covered his face and neck, darkening his collar. “Must be real nice.”
“It is. Must we do this like before?”
“Since we have to do it at all. Why don’t you leave jobs like this to professionals?” He tipped the tequila into his mouth, bit a lime wedge.
“Like hell you do.”
I didn’t bother to argue. While I had completed LAPD’s training for reserve officers, allowing me to legally work for the department, the program was designed for specialists and other volunteers. The instruction did not remotely prepare a graduate to participate in criminal investigations.
The mayor gave me special dispensation because my science and forensics company BioLaw offered free state-of-the-art analyses to the overloaded LA County Coroner’s office. My lavish contributions to his campaign chest coupled with my private annual donations to the LAPD also influenced his decision.
Though most in LAPD knew of my support—and knew it meant they had more modern equipment, access to better health care, and fully funded pensions after twenty-five years—the detectives hated working with me.
Money can’t buy me love.
“I’ve seen the pictures from the Barlow murder scene. Care to speculate as to why the killer spent so much time cutting her up?”
When I said Barlow, Gonzales’s brow furrowed briefly, and Hamilton’s gaze flickered.
“Well?” I prompted.
The first two times we worked together, they had shut me out this same way. And though my assistance in the last investigation had proved valuable, I knew they were unlikely to thaw toward me because of it.
Their reaction still hurt. Hope is not a reasonable emotion.
I took a sip of tequila, glanced around. From where we stood, we could see through the windows at the crowd inside. Hamilton noticed my visual surveillance.
“Looking for Sofia?” No gossip network could compare to that within a police station.
“It’s not like that.”
“Looked like something on Popwire. Nice picture. What did Aliena say?”
“I haven’t heard from her. She’s in Iraq. Coming home tonight, in fact.”
“You don’t sound worried,” Hamilton said.
“Why should I be?”
“A girl like Aliena usually gets pissed when she sees a picture on the internet of her boyfriend kissing another girl.”
“I was not kissing Sofia. She was kissing me.”
“Yeah,” Gonzales said, “I’d like to see how that explanation goes over.”
“How did you find it?” I asked him.
“One of the girls in Metro spotted it and recognized you. She emailed it to her friends, they forwarded it to their friends, and the picture went viral on our network in two hours.”
Damn. “Sorry about that.”
“Shit, I’ll bet you love it,” Gonzales said. He motioned to the bartender, who refilled his glass. “Pissed off a couple of captains, but you didn’t have to deal with that, did you? Now half the women in LAPD are probably after you. That’s the problem with this city. Even in the department there are too damn many gold diggers looking for sugar daddies.”
In earlier eras of my life, protocol would have permitted me to take Gonzales to task for such an insulting insinuation. Times being what they were, I let the comment pass, but the man had officially irritated me.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Since you’re airing your opinions, Alfred, tell me: why do you think the killer strung Sherri Barlow up and gutted her as if she were a deer? He must have worked on her for a while, and we all know how dangerous that is for him. What do you make of that?”
Gonzales stiffened at my use of his Christian name, swallowed his drink, and tossed his shot glass on the bar where it tipped and rolled onto its side with a clatter. “Piss off.” He strode toward the house.
“He’s never going to warm up to you, Montero,” Hamilton said. “Never.”
“I lose sleep over it. What about you? Do you really hate working with me so much?”
He leaned on the bar, crossed his legs at the ankles. “It’s like the last two times. I’m ordered to give you all cooperation. I like it as much as I like paying income tax. Why do you care? As long as you’re in.” He gestured to the barman. “Two more here.”
“I prefer to be welcome,” I said.
“Go ahead and prefer it. You’re a civilian and you always will be.”
“Everybody cares what happened to that young girl.”
“So? We’re handling it.”
“Good. I’m glad it’s you and Gonzales.” The bartender poured our drinks.
“Then leave us to it,” Hamilton said.
“I just want to help. Are you saying I don’t have the skills necessary to assist you?”
“Don’t even go there. If you think I’m going to tell you you’re good so you can walk around with your hand on your crotch like you’re Dick Tracy—I don’t think so. Homey don’t play dat.”
“I thought cops were superstitious.”
“So maybe I’m your lucky charm,” I said. “We are two-for-two, after all.”
He took a snort of his tequila. “We caught the first guy in three hours, and we would have solved the last one without you.”
True. Of course, cracking the case and catching the bad guy are two separate parts of the investigative process. Hamilton and Gonzales would have eventually followed up the same lead I had in the Richardson homicide. But time is a critical factor. Our killer possessed an Irish passport with plans to use it soon. Identifying the murderer doesn’t give you a lot of satisfaction when he escapes your net and makes it to another country. Even if a foreign agency catches him and extradites him, there is always the feeling of having had someone clean up after you.
“Why do you think the murderer cut the girl up?”
I lit a cigarette. “Watanabe’s examination confirmed the girl was a virgin. With the incense, this has all the earmarks of a ritual. Which might mean serial. After all, most ceremonies have more than one—”
He leaned toward me, voice soft. “You keep that fucking shit to yourself, you hear me?” He confirmed the bartender was out of earshot. “This was the work of some freak, that’s all. Not one word about any repeat. You say that in public and I will make sure this case is your swan song.”
“I got that from Reyes already. Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
“Then leave this sacrificial crap alone.”
“Because I don’t want to talk about it.”
A fair answer. “You’re more tolerant than Gonzales, no matter how you play it. Why?”
“Your charity work, and the contributions you make to inner city programs. I respect that you give so much money back to the community.”
“Money is energy. Always best to spread that around.”
“No ligature marks on her wrists?”
He finished his tequila. “No, she hadn’t been bound.”
“Yet the killer tied her to the ceiling by her ankles. Any idea how he managed that without the victim clawing his testicles off?”
“You read the reports. Nothing on the tox screen, no contusions on her head. We don’t know why she didn’t fight him. What do you want from me?”
“You were there. At the scene. What did it feel like?”
He turned to me, his expression as haunted as this mansion.
“It felt wrong. It felt like something really wrong had happened there.”
Tuesday, December 21, 9:39 p.m.
Images of Sherri’s mutilated body appeared in my mind. After reviewing the case file and the pictures of the crime scene, the way this perp cut her up made it clear we had a very deadly killer on our hands.
If proven wrong about Sherri’s murder being the first in a series, I would be as relieved as anyone. But as I had told Hamilton, rituals are never completed after one act. And everything about this murder pointed to a ritual.
If right, that meant the killer was hunting another teenage girl at this very moment.
Hamilton gave a low whistle. “I see a young lady dying for my company.”
On the lower level of the courtyard, a pretty dark-haired woman modeling a tiny black cocktail dress watched us over the rim of her champagne flute. She stood slightly apart from a small group, next to the covered wishing well.
“Looks familiar,” I said.
“Yeah. Works in the D.A.’s office. First time I saw her, my trick knee went out on me. And I don’t have a trick knee.” He glanced at his watch. “Thirty minutes and I’m back on duty. Are we done here?” He straightened his tie. “How do I look?”
“Like a cop on the make.”
“Your ass.” He went down the steps and across to the girl. She smiled and offered her hand as he came up to her. He kissed it, kept it, leaned over to whisper in her ear.
Smooth work was a Hamilton trademark.
Lieutenant Steven Hamilton had been promoted to Detective Three just a few weeks ago. One of LAPD’s most successful investigators, he was the ace of the Van Nuys Division.
A month earlier we had worked the murder of a wealthy banker named Douglas Richardson. It was not the type of homicide I usually investigated. I concentrated on brutal crimes against helpless victims, especially those where the killer repeated. The murder of a prominent businessman provided high visibility, however, and I knew nailing Richardson’s killer would enhance my reputation in the department—even if the regular detectives resented me for it. The investigation also gave me a second opportunity to work with Hamilton and Gonzales.
It had taken two days to break the case. We figured it for an inside job from the start, since Richardson had been shot twice in the back in his study, there was no sign of forced entry, and none of the staff had seen or heard a thing. In the end, we discovered our theory was correct: the butler did it. It happens.
We nailed the villainous valet when I noticed an inconsistency in his story about his family in Ireland. I sent a text to an associate in County Kerry to trace the lead. She reported the relatives had lately come into a large sum of money. Unexplained money. Hamilton and Gonzales would have followed up on it eventually, but since the butler was ready to rabbit, sooner was better than later in identifying him as our man.
I alerted Hamilton, we braced the old boy in his little house on the estate, he went for a vintage Luger (which ballistics later proved was the murder weapon), and I popped him on the chin with a right cross. He confessed to the murder, Hamilton and Gonzales received the official credit for solving the crime, and I faded into the background.
The method, motive, and relationship between killer and victim made the Richardson case unremarkable from a statistical point of view. Most murderers used handguns. In almost ninety percent of homicide cases, the killer and the victim knew each other. Drugs or crime were involved in more than half.
The Barlow homicide was different in every way.
The victim was a drug-free, athletic teenage girl who had been strung up and gutted like an animal, her flesh torn open with a sharp knife. The meticulous carving of her body made it extremely unlikely she had known her killer. The method seemed too deliberate for a crime of passion. That meant we had no motive for the murder.
Then why had he chosen Sherri?
I downed another shot of tequila and watched Hamilton as he chatted with the attractive young lady. The detective had an easy manner women found hard to resist. There were several points in his approach that could be improved, but I no longer offered advice to anyone over sixteen.
A luminescent outline appeared near the wishing well. It took me a moment to identify it. Adorned only in his moustache, the ghost of adult film star John Holmes, one of the Canyon’s most notorious residents, scanned the crowd.
No one screamed, so I guessed no one else could see him.
The shimmering porn king advanced on Hamilton’s girl. He dragged his hands along the pretty woman’s thighs, cupped her breasts. She shifted, as if mildly uncomfortable. Holmes continued groping her. He stepped forward and pressed against her. She fidgeted as he began a rhythmic movement. He saw me watching, waved. When I shook my head in disgust, he gave me the finger. I turned away, but not before seeing the young lady heading into the house, Hamilton in tow. Holmes was left standing with his gleaming erection pointing uselessly at the night sky.
As it seemed my interviews were over, I was at liberty.
“You have single malt back there?” I asked the bartender.
“Sure. The Glenlivet.”
“Be a good fellow and hand me a bottle.”
“Did you say a bottle?”
The five hundred dollar bills in my hand caught his attention. I slid them into the breast pocket of his blanket. “There’s something for your children.”
He bent down, came up with the plasma. “You want a glass?”
“No, thanks.” I took the bottle from him. “How’s it going tonight?”
“You’re my first tip.” He watched with interest as I uncorked the bottle. “You look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?”
“No. I’ve never been there.” I brought the drink to my lips.
The bottle clinked against my teeth. I consumed the contents in a single draught that lasted twenty seconds. As I popped the cork back into the dead soldier, a curtain of warmth started at my head and, pulled by gravity, descended to my toes. “If you’ve got a bottle of tequila back there, I’ll add three more Franklins to your take—four if you have another bottle of Don Julio.”
Studying me carefully, he raised his right hand, reached out with his index finger extended, and prodded me in the chest, as if to confirm I was actually there.
“How come you’re not on the ground? No one can drink like that.”
“This is Houdini’s place. It’s a magic trick. How about that tequila?” I handed him the empty. Four more hundreds slid into his pocket to join their brothers. Three more and he’d have enough for a jury. I got a cigarette in my mouth and lit it, glanced around. The bartender and I were alone.
He handed me the bottle of tequila, a frown on his face. “Mister, you’re gonna kill yourself.”
“I told you, it’s a trick. As incredible as his illusions were, Houdini did say they were all accomplished mechanically.”
“So how are you mechanically not drinking that booze?”
“Ah, just as the Great Houdini never passed on the secrets of his illusions, I cannot tell you the solution to mine.”
It wasn’t usually my nature to behave recklessly, but when you are seven centuries old, tempting the devil can occasionally offer irresistible mental stimulation. I loved seeing how far I could push it, yet have a plausible explanation. My supernatural metabolism gave me an obvious advantage. I could drink alcohol, pop pills, inject heroin, and snort cocaine, yet be clear of eye and sweet of breath as long as I had five or ten minutes to recover. If my body could develop an addiction to drugs, I would have the most expensive habit in history.
I blew smoke, set my cigarette in the ashtray, tugged out the cork, saluted the bartender, and tipped the liquor into my mouth. The raw sweet smell filled my nostrils. I gulped it down, draining the bottle like the drunken pirate I once had been.
That one I felt.
“It’s not possible,” my Samoan friend said.
“My dear fellow,” I told him, “it is merely sleight of hand. Or in this case, sleight of throat.” I patted him on the shoulder, beaming. “The solution is alimentary, Dr. Watson.” I brayed at my sally, loudly enough to draw some attention from the other side of the bar.
“I knew it,” he said. “You’re hammered.”
“An interesting way of phrasing it. New to me, I must admit.” I puffed on my cigarette, thinking my speech a bit slow.
“Can I get you some food, mister?”
“No, thank you. I’m going to have a look round the place, see if Harry’s hiding inside.”
Walking while inebriated always offered a fascinating experience, especially when one must do it under observation. I sauntered across the deck to the house, feeling as if everyone were watching me, and wondering if they could tell I was snockered. Suppressing an urge to laugh, I felt envious that mortals could remain in this unsteady, euphoric state for hours.
The living room had grown dark. The music thumped and bodies swayed around the giant Christmas tree. The holiday gala had shifted into late party mode.
I turned down an unlighted hallway, ambling along, my head buzzing pleasantly, when a door opened at the end. I froze. Three young women spilled out, adjusting their clothes, chattering gaily, gripping blinking devices.
I did not waste time determining if Sofia stood among them. Still shrouded in darkness, I quickly turned the knob on my right, slipped inside, eased the door shut. The breathless babble and electronic beeps approached and swept past.
A rattling breath behind me. I whirled. The room was too dim for me to see the person in bed, but the timbre of the snore convinced me a woman made the sound. The party music had enough bass to vibrate the entire room. Some people could sleep through anything.
I crossed to a set of French doors, stepped outside, and emerged onto another patio, alone. A kidney-shaped pool shone with underwater illumination. The water sparkled blue, twinkling in the lights. As I gazed into the shimmering depths, it startled me to see a blurry shape moving there. The shadow turned at the far end and came toward me.
Before I could step back, the ghostly figure of a woman burst from the water. Clad in a transparent green gown, she loomed over me, arms reaching. Her eyes formed black pools of madness, mouth a crooked grin.
“Oh, hell no,” I said.
Parting her lips in a pantomimed scream, revealing blackness tinged with raw red, she rose slightly, then pounced. I instinctively raised my arm to ward her off, but she slid through it. Her lunatic eyes filled my vision. I shivered as she possessed my body.
Charges of electricity sparked my insides. My arms jerked as if in seizure. I took an awkward step to the side, not of my own accord. The pool glittered at my feet. She was trying to force me into the water. Fighting, I made to step away, but electric current coursed through me again. I moved in the wrong direction. Now I teetered on the lip. Another surge of otherworldly power and my body leaped into the pool.