Winston Cross dropped the peregrine into a padded briefcase and snapped it shut. He threw the briefcase into the back seat of his car and opened the driver’s side. Sturgis took three shots at Cross with a revolver. Cross looked like he was in a movie that was getting tangled in the projector and the bullets sailed through him.
Cross frowned at Sturgis and shook his head with more pathos than anger. Like he was confronting a brother who can’t handle his hootch. Sturgis stared frozen and his face fell into involuntary penitence, “I won’t hold that against you, Verne. I can see why you would be so angry. And terrified.” Cross slid into the driver’s seat and tore off.
“We have to go after him,” Toli said yanking on Delareux’s jacket.
“Not tonight,” Delareux murmured, watching Cross’s car shrink as it departed.
“What about that guy has you rattled? We’ve seen things walk through walls.”
“It’s like I said, be either corporeal or incorporeal. Not both.”
“What difference does it make?”
“I’m not locking horns with anything that can walk through a wall and put a slug in my gut.”
“Don’t you have any dicketydoo that will stop him from doing whatever it is he does?”
“A believer in magic now, are you now?”
“I’m a believer in whatever works. And things like these are usually your department.”
“Not this one,” Delareux continued to stare.
“The least we could do is figure out why this peregrine is so popular. It obviously does more than restore ghost witches.”
Delareux’s eyes snapped to Toli and his face restored its normal expression, “Righty oh,” he ambled toward the porch of Parker’s house in an odd swagger, “What do you say, Judge? Lose anything?”
Winston Cross pulled up to a traffic light on the edge of town. As he waited, he felt the weight of the car shift to the left. Not by much, but enough to get his attention. He heard a low clunk in time to the sounds of the idling engine. He turned to look in the back seat and caught a glimpse of a tattered pant leg and boot slip out the rear door. He leapt from the car and Barclay threw a wild haymaker that struck Cross on the temple. Barclay threw another and Cross moved behind him like a glowing rubber band. He pulled his pistol and shot twice through Barclay’s chest.
“Careful, Ghost,” Barclay tapped his chest, “You’ll damage the peregrine.”
“I could just tear you apart like hotel furniture and take it back,” Cross teleported to Barclay and tried to clasp his hand around Barclay’s neck. Barclay bent backward and did a handspring to his feet. He twirled on his heel and began running. He ran fast for having such a chaotic lope. Cross teleported in a zigzagging route in pursuit of Barclay. Anytime Cross got close, Barclay tumbled and rolled away. Their chase brought them to a decrepit wooden beam fence surrounding a thicket pocked field. Barclay didn’t so much as jump over the fence as allow himself to fall over it and somersault to his feet and keep running. Barclay ran under the gnarled, black, lichen drenched branches of the thickets.
“Look…golem…” Cross blurted between teleports, “We’re…not…getting…anywhere.”
“The name’s Barclay.”
“Barclay. And I am getting somewhere,” Barclay stopped. “In fact, I’m here.”
A hundred yards away stood a leaning, crumbling mansion being overtaken by the swamp. A glowing wisp appeared and moved toward Barclay. Cross teleported to Barclay and was seized by a rigid, knobby claw at the end of an emaciated, spasming arm. The wisp had formed into a gauzy specter of a woman. Cross blinked and streaked, but couldn’t escape the woman’s grasp. The woman pulled Cross to her cracked porcelain face. Her eyes were featureless. She opened her jaw like a snake and flashed a maw full of black needles. She let out a shriek that made Cross wince, his eyes teared and he slapped his hands over his ears.
“Allow me to introduce the Lady Sylvia Winthrop,” Barclay said.
“Delareux,” Sturgis barked, “You can go right ahead and skedaddle.”
“Okay,” Delareux walked away, “Let me know if you want to hire a professional to get your peregrine back”
“What do know about the Jade Peregrine?”
“That you lost it and you want it back. My client also wants it. And apparently, whoever The Ghost is working for now, wants it too.”
“It’s also necessary we retrieve it immediately.” Le Bec emerged from the shadows under the trees. Shelby was close behind.
“Sheb,” Delareux said feigning surprise. “I didn’t know you knew Le Bec too.” He gave her a stage wink. Le Bec looked down at Shelby.
“He figured it out at the party,” Shelby said to Le Bec.
“Le Bec,” Sturgis hollared and aimed his revolver. “I’m taking you in myself!” He jogged down off the porch toward Le Bec. “Hands behind your back.”
Toli stepped between Sturgis and Le Bec and leaned in, his head tiled forward, looking over his glasses, “Judge, I realize this man is on the wrong side of Louisiana State law, but in this matter, -which, while I don’t know the details, I understand is particularly urgent- he’s on our side. I think a collaboration, however abhorrent Your Honor may feel toward that suggestion…I would press you consider, on the basis of averting the oncoming catastrophe. It would only be to our mutual benefit and, gauging from the look that’s been pinned to your face since Professor Parker crashed the mayor’s soiree, I daresay to our mutual survival. Am I close to understanding the gravity of this matter, Judge Sturgis?”
Sturgis stared at Toli. His eyes blinked and his head swiveled as he reorganized his senses, then shook his head.
“I knew you were a man of boundless reason,” Toli smiled. “Now, do you care to share the details of this affair so we can properly strategize?”
“Fine,” Sturgis shook his head. “C’mon inside.”
“Dip into the petty cash and buy yourself a beer,” Delareux said to Toli as they walked onto Parker’s porch.
“Lady Winthrop,” Barclay said low in his dry voice, sounding like paper being rubbed together, “The ritual is ready.”
The banshee released Cross and drifted toward the house. Cross followed.
“Why do you linger, Ghost?” Barclay hissed.
“I’m not leaving without the peregrine.”
“The Lady has been patient and merciful. I suggest you take your good fortune and go.”
“I’m not leaving without…”
Barclay took a few swinging strides toward Cross, “The Lady could have easily ended you, Ghost. Do not reject her gift.”
Cross stepped toward Barclay, “She’ll have to if she thinks I’m leaving empty handed.”
They stood silent regarding each other.
“Fine, Ghost,” Barclay rattled. “You may have the peregrine when the ritual is completed. Until then, stand clear and let me work.”
“The ritual is for restoration of the Lady Winthrop,” Barclay explained as they entered the solarium.
“I don’t care,” Cross said alighting in high backed chair. “Just get it over with.”
The wooden floor was tessellated with geometric shapes, crisscrossing line patterns festooned with at least a hundred names of gods, angels and demons in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Enochian. The clumps of candles that dotted the room were fused into melting castles with spires aflame. A low marble table was at the center. It looked made up for someone to sleep on. Barclay placed the peregrine on a pillow at one side of the table. The banshee hovered, bobbing and swaying like a dog looking to be let out. Cross sat slumped to one side, his head heavy on his hand, viewing the scene askance. After several arm waving katas, polylingual incantations and brief cadenza involving a sword, cup, baton and a coin, the banshee crawled onto the table and laid down on the sheets, her head on the pillow, occupying the same space as the peregrine. The peregrine began to glow, as did the banshee in response. The banshee’s vague, green haze began to congeal. Threads of meat and bone stretched out and began to tangle and braid, twisting and looping around each other, merging and thickening. A skeleton became a flayed body. Flesh formed and wrapped itself around the muscle until a woman was lying on the table in place of a specter. She laid motionless for a moment, then lurched up with a violent intake of air. The candles extinguished at once. She turned and sat on the edge of the table, slumped forward, her tangled, black mop hung down and covered her face. Barclay draped her with blankets. She threw her arm up and the candles relit.
“Sorry I was gone so long, Barclay,” the woman muttered. “I was in another dimension.”
“Lady Sylvia?” Barclay placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Barclay, for the last time,” Sylvia groaned, “Sylvia. Enough with the ‘lady’ stuff. It’s weird.”
“And who are you?” she asked Cross.
“Winston Cross. I work for the new boss in town.” Cross looked as though he was waiting for a late train.
“That’s great. I always love when it’s new boss time.”
“This new boss has hired me to fetch the Jade Peregrine.”
“Okay,” she pointed at the peregrine sitting on the pillow. “It’s useless now. Dead battery.”
“I don’t care,” Cross sighed, stuffing the peregrine into his jacket pocket, “I just need to deliver it. I doubt my boss even knows what to do with it.”
“Okay, go deliver it. I saw you flitting around last night. I know you can move faster than this.”
Cross scowled, then looked at Barclay and gave a sympathetic nod, before teleporting off.
“Welcome back, m’lady,” Barclay handed Sylvia a cup. “It’s chamomile.”
“Sylvia. Thanks, Barclay,” she sipped.
Barclay moved a chair and sat across from Sylvia.
“Can you recall what killed you, m’lady?” Barclay said.
“Sylvia. My incense was rigged to blow on ignition,” Sylvia replied.
“I have no idea. I didn’t see it. The explosion was in the way,” Sylvia let slip a solitary cackle and slapped Barclay on the knee. Barclay coughed out a nervous chuckle.
“I see, m’lady hasn’t lost her whimsy.”
“Sylvia,” she said looking around, squinting and blinking at the room, “I’m next to go to Mexico with Texaco in tow.”
“I beg m’lady’s pardon?”
“Sylvia. My psyche spent the last twelve years crumbling as banshee. Things are still getting reconnected. I meant, what time is it?”
“I would have to guess around three a.m., m’lady.”
“Sylvia. Oh dear, time is ticking.”
Winston had never seen his boss, Pulcinella, so quiet and still. Normally it’s all howling laughter with mouthfuls of food and a greasy, stubbled, double chin, jiggling with mirthful convulsions, typically directed at some crude, sadistic act he ordered play out. Tonight it was his undivided attention focused on his odd guest. The strange guest was off putting to look at with his drawn face and eyes, solid, gleaming black, the size of golfballs.
“What the hell is that shit growing out of his back?” Winston thought. “If I believed in demons, I’d figure this for one. Crossing his hands, though I’d be more accurate saying talons, in front of him… flashing an insincere smile, like he’s selling you a vacuum cleaner.”
The guest rose and offered Winston his talon and a slippery smile, “Alton Blaylock.”
Winston paused and shook Blaylock’s hand, “The Ghost.”
“An alias,” Blaylock lit up. “I like aliases.”
Winston placed the peregrine on the desk in front of Pulcinella, “As requested.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” Pulcinella trumpeted to Blaylock. “That’s why I pay this guy, eh?”
“If there’s no further business?” Winston said to Pulcinella.
“No,” Pulcinella wobbled to his feet and smacked Winston on both arms, “You do great work. Ciao, signore. We’ll be in touch, eh?”
Cross nodded to Pulcinella and fired an arched warning eyebrow across Blaylock’s bow, then teleported from the room.
“That was some weird shit,” Yalda said, eyes wide. “Where’d you find him?”
“The phone book,” Pulcinella replied and held out the peregrine. “What is this thing, anyway?”
“It’s all very technical,” Blaylock took the peregrine and examined it. “Of course you give it back with the battery dead,” he griped. “I guess that’s all the juice Winthrop had in her. Oh well, I got all I needed to harvest from the comet eater and I ended a particularly irksome lineage. That’s a twofer. Concentrate on the plus column, right? She served me well. About time that family did something for me. Ray’s little pets everywhere I go. Up my ass. You know the feeling, Pulcinella, old boy?”
“People aren’t usually alive around me long enough to get tiresome,” Pulcinella grunted.
“Normally, I’m with you, but this one family…” Yalda shook his head, “Like roaches.”
Yalda turned and started to leave the office.
“Eh, signore,” Pulcinella grumbled, “Let’s do business again.”
“We’ll see. In about five hours from now a transdimensional, celestial apex predator is going to go apeshit all over surrounding environs. It’s gonna be pissed off and it’s gonna be hungry. It’ll eat everything not nailed down, not that that would help, until it gets its fill and fucks off back to space. If you’re still alive…you know what, we’ll see.”
“Come back after that, then,” Pulcinella said, dealing cards for solitaire.