“Are you sure you won’t consider coming on with the agency?”
Mountains rise and fall away, huge treeless flanks scraped with stone and snow. An avalanche has taken a bite off the surface below a peak a ways back, but nothing close to the road has fallen. Below them on the right, the inlet waits for the return of the tide, but Nazlı can’t keep her eyes off the cliff rising from the other shoulder. One good slide could keep them stranded out here for days. All the snow winter had been putting off fell at once, complicating Thanksgiving travel and pushing the in-towners into a Christmas-shopping frenzy.
She’d thought she was going to be glad to get out of town for a night. She’s thinking better of it now.
“Why? It’s not like they provide benefits. This way, I can do what I want and not go with you on the stupid shit.”
“I feel like you only come with me on the stupid shit.”
“That’s because it’s all stupid shit, Julian. Do you think Bishop would even hire me for real?”
“She’s never told me to leave you out of it,” he says, shrugging.
“I guess she did hire you.”
He glances away from the highway to grin at her. “See?”
Her fingers clench involuntarily on the edge of the seat every time the headlights sweep out over nothing, this two-lane track cut directly into the side of a mountain that, by rights, should drop directly into the sea. Tons of rock and snow hangs directly above them, and it’s totally dark now the orange glow of Anchorage’s collected streetlights has faded from the rearview.
They turn off at the Hope junction right as the dashboard clock flips over to midnight. Julian shakes his head.
“There’s some kind of parable at this crossroads.”
“Good lord,” says Nazlı. “Like, if you don’t have Hope, you… end up in Seward?”
“We should do a reckoning down here some day,” he laughs.
The Hope Highway is even darker than the main drag, passing through dense evergreens that seem to suck any remaining light out of the night. The grope of their headlights looks like found footage from a bad horror flick. Twenty minutes later, when they turn off onto the gravel, a thread of uncertainty tickles through her. Something slippery and escaping feels strange.
The residence they are to visit is on the very outer edge of the tiny community of Hope. It’s almost a gold rush ghost town, on the far side of an actual gold rush ghost town called Sunrise, and at this hour there’s little to indicate that some two hundred souls do still live here. Living souls, even. The kind the census counts. Way down at the end of Cripple Creek Road, buried in trees and suffocating in darkness, is a house with a light bleeding through the curtains on one upstairs window. Julian maneuvers the truck around so it’s facing out of the drive and also toward the open end of the road, because he hates feeling like he’ll be hemmed into an awkward fifteen point turn in the unlikely but possible event of needing to make a getaway, and they pile out.
Above them, Nazlı sees the curtains twitch and then press to the glass from behind, as though somebody was caught looking and then withdrew fast to hold the cover closed against the window. Nonetheless, Julian has to knock twice before there’s any sound of movement on the other side.
The door opens just a crack, revealing a leathery slice of an elderly woman’s face.
“Are you those… people?” she says, so close to a whisper it’s comical.
Nazlı opens her mouth but catches Julian’s elbow in her ribs before she gets a chance to say anything.
“I’m Julian Faith and this is my colleague Nazlı Kelis. I understand there have been some… difficult to explain situations with a young person in the house?”
She looks between them. Nazlı puts on a smile. The door swings open far enough to let them through and then closes again, bolting tightly against the darkness outside.
“She’s this way. With her parents.”
The old woman’s voice had a bit of an unkind slant on the word parents, as though there was some irony to be wrought from the term. Behind her, Nazlı and Julian exchanged a glance before following in silence.
The child and the parents are upstairs in a small bedroom, a child’s bedroom, with the latter seated at either side of the narrow bed, though they stand when the two strangers arrive.
Nazlı’s nerves sizzle again. The old woman has shown them into the room but not actually set foot across the threshold of the door, and the mother is smiling at the apologetically but also seems to be looking a bit over her shoulder, at the crone standing in the darkened hallway. The whole house is quite dark, actually. Nazlı doesn’t always realize because she sees so well in low light, but the old woman only carried one small candle and Julian had to ascend the stairs haltingly, with one hand dragging on the wall.
“Thank you, Mother,” the woman on the left side of the bed says.
Mother whispers something behind them that could have been an oath and closes the door to the bedroom, raising the hairs on the back of Nazlı’s neck. Julian takes point. Her job, at this stage, is to watch, and particularly to listen, but not to him. Not to anyone in this room, really.
The child is the trouble. It’s a girl, maybe six, and she’s asleep at the moment, but Nazlı can tell that sleep is shallow, and feverish. There’s something slant about the room, too, a fuzz of magic, but she can’t quite get her fingers around it. Maybe Mother has attempted a remedy of her own. She’s clearly the superstitious one, here, from the half-sentences she’s catching of Julian’s conversation with the adults in the room.
Mother wasn’t wrong, though. This kid, if Nazlı has to place a knee-jerk guess, is either haunted or possessed. It’s difficult to tell with her eyes closed. The parents—whose names, she gathers, are Mr. and Mrs. Lubbock—were at least swayed enough by the old woman’s rantings that they allowed someone from… outside the medical convention to be invited to the house in the middle of the night.
Normally Nazlı and Julian show up some time after the priest and the low-budget paranormal investigators. At least, that’s the joke.
Whatever is hanging around on the air has settled between her teeth like a layer of fine sand, inhaled on the road and impossible to flush by spitting but compelling you to try anyway. She wants to be alone in the room for fifteen minutes so she can dig up whatever the old lady did. Doubtless some kind of half-remembered mojo bag or malformed underground vegetable hidden in the slats of the poor kids bed or behind a panel of kickboard.
Regardless of whether you believe there is an inherent blood division between magicians and the general population, there’s plenty of evidence to illustrate that a larger share of people practiced historically than they do today. As attitudes changed, as organized religions that wanted to outsource magical doings to the control of priests and prophets, cherished family traditions that represented generations of collected research faded into anecdotes and superstition, folk wisdom, a charming bit of antiquated cultural flair. As a result, instructions and interdictions get lost.
“Yes, that would be just fine, Mrs. Lubbuck,” Julian says, his hand closing around her arm with a slightly tighter grip than strictly necessary to get her attention. “We’ll let her sleep for the night, poor thing, but don’t hesitate to come wake us if something changes.”
Julian has done what Julian does best, and charmed his way into the confidence of the stricken parents, who are going to let them stay and observe, at least for the night and into the next day. Since the kid isn’t presenting ‘symptoms’ right now, or whatever.
Mrs. Lubbock leads them back through the hallways, having taken another candle in a little, tarnished holder from a table beside the child’s bed.
“I’m sorry about the dark,” she says. “The snow knocked our power out the day before yesterday and it still hasn’t come back. We heat by wood stove, but we try not to run the generator unless we have to.”
“That’s no problem. We’ll manage.”
Apologizing further about the scant accommodations, she shows them to a small room off the other end of the hallway, a seldom-used office by the look of the stacked papers spilling over the keyboard on the desk and dusty, out-dated computer monitor. She brought them some spare blankets, told them which door went to the restroom, and then began to withdraw.
Just before closing the door behind her, Mrs. Lubbock turns to lay her hand gently on Nazlı’s forearm. Throughout all this, she’s been remarkably calm, especially in contrast to the panicky old woman, but there is tension and weariness in the thin skin around her eyes.
“Tell me,” she says, locking eyes with Nazlı. “Is my child dying?”
“I… we, ah, have no reason to think so, Mrs. Lubbock,” Nazlı stammers, patting her hand. “I’m sure everything is going to be fine.”
Julian usually does the talking, and when the woman finally excuses herself after another long moment of staring into Nazlı’s face, she finds him staring.
“What the fuck was that?”
Nazlı pushes her hair out of her face, a fine tremor having worked its way into her fingers. “She knows what I am.”
“Huh? …You sure?”
“Just… the way she looked at me. I think she knows. Like… she was asking me, Julian. She wasn’t asking for some useless reassurance from a stranger about something none of us are equipped to know. She was asking me if I see death, here.”
He kicks the chair out from the desk and scatters his limbs into something like a sitting position. “Well. Do you?”
“I don’t think so. Not on the kid, anyway. But I’d like to have a second look.”
They spread their borrowed blankets out on the floor, talking idly through what was going to happen when morning came. They’ll need to speak to the child, to the Lubbocks, and to the grandmother to see if any folk medicine had been introduced to the scenario. Mainly, though, they’re killing time and making it sound like they’re satisfied that there is nothing more to be done tonight and will go to bed. The real work must begin immediately, without the interference of the family.
“Did you see where the master bedroom was?” Nazlı says, much more quietly. Now, they’re knee-to-knee in the middle of the blankets with the candle Mrs. Lubbock left in between them.
“Yes, it’s at the other end of the hall, next to the kid’s room.”
“That’s gonna be delicate.”
Julian nods. “We could actually wait until tomorrow.”
“Fuck, no. There’s even a slim chance we could get this sorted and get the hell out of here before sunrise. I do not like the smell of this place.”
“You think there’s more going on than… I don’t know, the usual?”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? The usual?”
He shrugs, carefully pinching a little bit of very fine black powder out of a leather satchel that smudges his knuckles with the stuff. “Since this is even making you edgy, I guess we’ll just say a prayer that this is simple, yeah?”
Nazlı looks down. “Let’s just get this done. I’ll feel better when we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
Julian nods, and rubs the powder from his fingers into the yellow flame of the candle. The faint smell of paraffin wax sours for a moment with a puff of metallic smoke, leaving an odor on the air that’s almost like blood. The flame gutters, and as Julian’s special spice gets drawn up the wick, turns black, sucking the dim light out of the room.
Nazlı pushes her way up and reaches down to help him to his feet. The enchantment that will keep them more or less hidden from the other eyes and ears in the house, at least the human ones, could falter if he’s not holding the candle. On the other hand, Nazlı’s the only one of the pair of them that can see. Fortunately, they’ve done this move before, and Nazlı’s guided their nocturnal adventures with her gifted night-vision since they were kids. She stands behind him, her right hand on his right shoulder and her left reaching beyond his candle-arm to open the door.