“Can I help you?” the ghost whispered.
It drifted behind the dust-covered reference desk, an insubstantial wisp with a hint of long hair wrapped in an untidy bun and the barest glimpse of wire-rimmed spectacles. I tried not to stare. It had been decades since anyone had required corrective lenses. And, well, she was dead. She wasn’t supposed to exist at all.
I cleared my throat. The sound echoed in the library’s cavernous skeleton. “I’m, uh, looking for a book.”
Kalm looked at his two-headed axe lying in front of him on the boardroom table and wished that he hadn’t left his shield at his desk. Armor was out of the question, his helm and chainmail sat uselessly in the trunk of his car in the darkest depths of parking level thirty-three, section D.
“-but who is saying that we need to hire consultants?” The vice-queen’s voice cut through him like a shard of ice killing any further thoughts of his forgotten armaments. You could always hear it in her voice first. The practiced fake charm slithered away to reveal the more suitable growl that lurked underneath.
When the wren first heard the clockwork man’s symphony of pipes in the blooming days of springtime, she was hesitant—his constant whirring and clanking set her feathers on edge—but the music emanating from his metal chest proved too strong a lure. She settled on his window-ledge and joined in the chorus.
He smiled from his workbench, silver eyes gleaming. They spent hours together, his full-bodied tones a perfect counterpoint to her own coloratura. Over time, he took to leaving her daily offerings of string, twigs, or tasty seeds.
Now, months later, autumn glazed the city with frost. The wren had already delayed her departure far longer than she should. Today would have to be her last visit. She would miss their duets, but she took solace in knowing he’d be waiting when she returned with the spring rains.
Father first awoke the topiaries the morning after Mother died. Shrubs wriggled loose from their dirt when he passed, dormant bushes burst free and scampered across the countryside. Thus it went for eighteen years. I lived my life knowing that Father could awaken plants, but I did not realize what I, his daughter, could awaken.
Knowing what would happen before it did was nothing but torture—a torture that made me cry before everyone did or made me laugh before everyone else.
One morning a dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties walked into my office. A flowing blue dress dangled off her small frame, while her gaunt face hid under a wide hat containing enough feathers for flight. A fraying at her elbows suggested her blouse had been in the family a while. Her pale lips fluttered. In respect, I rose to my full seven-foot height, and then she spoke.
“My husband is a zombie.”
The ting-a-ting-clank announcing a customer caught me off guard. No one came in Moore’s Gas & More in July. We didn’t have air conditioning. Even the taffy got squishy.
I popped up from the candy row and gave my jeans a yank. “Can I help you?”
I squinted at the customer standing by the corn chips, backlit by the window. I guessed woman because she was short. I figured she wanted the john.
“Back there.” I pointed past the air filters. “Only got one. Uni-sex and all.”
She stared out the window like a little kid, her fingers hooked over the magazine racks.
“I’m Cinny if you need anything,” I said.
I resumed my candy shelving, singing Gloria Estefan under my breath. I had a good set of pipes. Mama said my voice was sweet enough to soothe baby birds out of the nest, whatever that meant, only I was too awkward to sing in front of folks.
The customer scuff-scuffed into the candy row like she didn’t know to pick her feet up. I turned and I figured out she was a he, and the strangest little he I’d ever seen.
There was no hot water when I went to take a shower this morning. Oh great, I thought. It’s always something. I went down to the basement to see if I could figure out what was wrong with the water heater and right away I saw what was causing the problem: the dragon was dead.
“Nothing says good morning, Monday, like a cup of boiling hot cocoa with crunchy marshmallows.” Joshua spoke between gentle slurps. He sat on an ice-cold concrete bench wrapped in layers of coats and sweaters, accessorized by a scarf and tie.
Lucy examined Joshua’s perpetual scowl for any hint of humor. Steam drifted off the cup warming his hands. She rewrapped her scarf for the hundredth time and resumed pacing in an attempt to keep warm.
“Joshua, I never know when you’re being serious.”
He sipped his cocoa audibly crunching down on a marshmallow and almost managed a smile, but reverted back to pure scowl as his gaze fell on the concrete chess tables across the park. The tables started filling this time of the morning, and stayed somewhat full most daylight hours.
“Our murderer is here.”
He leaned in, intruding on her personal space in a familiar way she only allowed her mentor. Lucy felt his words as heated breath on one ear more than she heard them.
His lips and breath withdrew, leaving her questioning his intensions. They stood on an empty tube platform. No cars. Above, concrete and countless feet of dirt. Below, rails in a six-foot deep pit.
She put a hand on her stomach to settle it.