“Ech - can you believe that woman? As if my Morty would ever be interested in a skinny kvetcher like Gladys Finch.”
Irene and I stood in the shade of a large oak, watching as a simple pine coffin was lowered into the ground. ‘My Morty’ was a chubby, balding man in his sixties who stood at the edge of the grave and wept openly, round cheeks wet with tears. Clinging to his arm, murmuring comfort, was a thin woman who couldn’t look more like her name if cliché were the rule.
There were no flowers, no songs. The turnout was decent, though, for at least thirty people were gathered to lay Irene Goldblatt to rest. All the mourners wore black, of course, stark figures outlined against the gray tombstones. They listened in respectful silence to a reading of Psalms, standing still as clothed statues ruffled by the breeze.
"She’s had her eye on my Morty for years,” Irene said. “Owns the condo next door.” Another sniff and pat to her hair. “But he’s tasted her cooking - she’ll never have my Morty.”
The Rodeph Shalom cemetery was a peaceful place, a huge mosaic of green grass, stone and marble. The serenity invited you to stay and visit, to linger on shaded benches and listen to the silence.
"Don’t you want him to be happy again?”
Irene gave me a look. “Of course I do, dear. That’s why you’re here, remember? I don’t want my Morty to live with guilt on his conscience. But I know my husband - he’d never be happy with a woman who can’t cook and constantly whines about how her kids never come visit.” She threw up her hands. “Why should they come visit? So they can get stomach aches?”
Irene’s gossiping seemed out of place given the solemnity of the occasion, and besides - I didn’t care. This sweet little Jewish grandmother had been driving me crazy for two days, and I wanted my life back. “Shhhh. You dragged me all the way out here to see this. I wanna hear the Rabbi.”
He’d lowered the Psalms and was reciting something from memory, eyes closed and face lifted to the sun. I didn’t understand the language, but the cadence of the words was beautiful.
“Kaddish.” Irene murmured. “A mourner’s prayer.”
We listened together in silence. Morty’s sobs, muted during the prayer, became sniffles as the Rabbi finished his prayer and stepped back, away from the grave. Then the sniffles stopped, leaving only the rustle of wind in the trees, soft as a sigh of farewell.
Morty bent and scooped up a handful of dirt, tossing it into the yawning hole. One by one, others came forward and did the same, touching Morty sympathetically on the shoulder or murmuring a word in his ear as they filed past. They moved in knots and clusters down the hill toward their parked cars, leaving Morty to stand, obviously grief-stricken, by the grave. Gladys tried to draw him away, but he shook his head. Whatever he said to the woman sent her trailing reluctantly after the others. He then stood alone, staring woodenly down at the coffin, as two men with shovels moved in to cover it forever.
“He doesn’t want to let you go.” I turned to Irene, expecting to see her cheeks wet with tears. Instead, I found her serene and smiling, eyes alight in a way I hadn’t noticed before.
“We’ll be together again soon enough,” she said, as though there were no doubt. “I’ll be waiting for him.”
Remembering the Light, it all seemed so clear, and so simple. I knew why Irene wasn’t sad. I swallowed hard, suddenly wondering who would be waiting for me when my time came.
“What do you want me to say to Morty?” The memory of the Light beckoned, drawing me as well as Irene. For the first time, I felt Irene’s impatience as though it were my own.
“You tell him that ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’.”
“What?” Peaceful visions of everlasting understanding splintered.
“You heard me, dear. He’ll understand.” Irene wasn’t looking at me. She was watching her Morty. “Then you do this.“
To my astonishment, Irene recited in a sing-song voice, curtseying midway, “Schlemeil, schlemozzle, Hahsenfeffer Incorporated.”
“You want me to sing the theme song from “Laverne and Shirley?” I’d watched enough weekend reruns to recognize it. What she was asking was just too much. “He’ll think I’m a lunatic!”
She reached out to pat my hand, but stopped short. I wouldn’t have felt it anyway. I’d already learned that Irene could be seen and heard, but she had little or no influence on the physical world. “Don’t worry, dear. It’s our little code. Just do it.”
“Oh, jeez,” I muttered.
“And by the way - “ she smiled with such sweetness my heart clenched, “ - thank you.” Irene faded, but I knew she was still there. I knew it as surely as I knew my own name.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped from the shadows and marched toward Morty.
He didn’t notice me at first. The rhythmic sound of shoveling - scrape, plop, scrape, plop - had a hypnotic quality. Morty was crying again, silently this time, while the two men doing the shoveling stoically ignored him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d filled in a grave while family watched.
“Nice day, huh?” Oh, my God. Great opener there, Nicki.
Morty barely glanced at me before he went back to watching the hole fill with dirt. He didn’t answer, mopping at his face with a crumpled tissue.
“What I mean is, at least it’s not raining. You know, like in Spain.”
“Miss, I don’t know who you are, but I’m burying my wife.” Irene’s Morty had a voice like gravel, no doubt hoarse from weeping. His plump face crumpled, then steadied. “I don’t have any money, and I’d appreciate it if you moved along.”
He thought I was a either a hooker or a vagrant! That’s what dressing funky could get you - totally typecast. Either my heavy mascara and dark red lipstick branded me a vamp, or my vintage clothes labeled me a beggar. Which was it? Desperate to get Irene’s message over with, I blurted, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”
Morty’s eyes widened. “Are you all right, Miss?”
Now he thought I was a lunatic hooker/bum. Great.
“Mr. Goldblatt, your wife wants you to know that your matzo balls weren’t dry and that it wasn’t your fault she choked on one.” Morty’s mouth fell open. “And she said you’d understand if I did this - schlemeil, schlemozzle, Hahsenfeffer Incorporated.”
The rhythm of the shovels ceased as all three men gaped, but I didn’t care. It was done, it was over, and I was free.
“I’m sorry about your wife.” I started backing up, away from the grave. “Bye-bye.”
Then I turned and ran like hell, ignoring Morty’s delayed shout. “Miss . . . Miss . . . come back . . .”
I ran all the way to my car. I’d parked it at the base of the hill, far enough away that no one could easily read the license number, but not so far I couldn’t reach it pretty quick.
I thought I was home free when I grabbed the door handle - until someone called my name.
“Dr. Bascombe?” I couldn’t believe the timing. “What are you doing here?”
He was wearing a black suit. Dolce and Gabbana, unless I missed my guess. The tie was a blue patterned silk, crisply knotted. He looked well-tailored and well-off, and so unlike the two previous times we’d met that it was no wonder I hadn’t recognized him among the mourners. Just showed how eager I was to be rid of Irene that I could miss a hunk like that, even if corporate boytoy wasn’t my usual taste.
“Call me Joe.” He smiled, and my heart did that annoying flip thing it does. At least now I knew why - not true love, just a heart defect. “Irene Goldblatt’s obituary was in the paper. I came to pay my respects.” He hesitated. “But I was really looking for you.”
My radar went up. “As my doctor or . . . “ I let the question dangle, very curious to hear the answer. A quick glance at the mirrored surface of my car window confirmed I was looking pretty good - hardly the weak, pale creature he’d known in the hospital. I’d just run down a hill and was barely out of breath. My heart was as reliably unreliable as ever, so why was Dr. Handsome looking for me?
“Research, actually.” I blinked at my reflection, not expecting that one. “You know the paper on near death experiences I’ve always wanted to write? I’m going to do it, and I wondered whether you’d consider being my first test subject.”
“Your what?” The words ‘test’ and ‘subject’ were not in my vocabulary. “I really don’t like the sound of that.”
So much for my delusions of vanity - Mr. Cute Doctor was here to do a sanity check.
“You should see your face.” Joe laughed, looking truly amused. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I was just hoping you’d agree to an interview so I could record your experience. Your impressions, your feelings.” He leaned against my car and kept talking. “How it’s changed you.”
I still didn’t like the sound of this, and I liked even less that he’d hit on the one thing that was bothering me. For the experience had changed me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be changed.
“No thanks, Doc.” I unlocked the car door and opened it, forcing him to step back a pace. “I’ve already forgotten most of it, and I’m the same old Nicki Styx I was before. No life changing revelations here.”
“Oh, really?” The skeptical tone of his voice was unmistakable. I turned, hand on the door.
“I suppose the old Nicki Styx was in the habit of approaching grieving widowers and singing the theme from a 70’s sitcom?”
I was mortified. He’d seen me make a fool of myself. “Laverne and Shirley,” I said icily. “And it’s none of your business what my habits are. I do a lovely rendition of ‘Gilligan’s Island’, too - but I save it for Bar Mitzvahs.”
“Oh my God, that’s hideous! What were you thinking?”
Evan's outrage was loud and clear, despite the jingle of windchimes over the front door. Luckily, he wasn’t talking to a customer, but to himself.
“Are those feathers in Courtney Love’s hair or is it an actual bird’s nest?” He held up the latest issue of Faboo magazine and waved it indignantly in our direction, not even bothering with a hello first.
“You mean the ‘I-just-rolled-out-of-bed-in-a-crackhouse’ look is already over?” I pushed Kelly’s wheelchair through the doorway with no help from him, grateful for the cool rush of air conditioning. “Maybe she passed out in a chicken coop.”
“All that great bone structure just going to waste.” Evan looked truly upset. “The woman needs to put down the lipstick and fire her stylist!”
“Oh, wow,” Kelly said, unfazed by Evan’s fashion fit. “What a great store!” She gazed around, taking in the clothing racks, the colorful hats and beaded purses, the glassed-in jewelry counter. “Is that Audrey Hepburn? Ooo, Marilyn Monroe! What a great idea!”
Nothing she could’ve said would’ve made Evan and me happier. The store mannequins at Handbags N' Gladrags were our pride and joy. One of Evan’s artist friends had turned bland figures into glamorous replicas of early film stars, and we kept them dressed accordingly. I tried to play it cool while Evan turned to mush.
“Kelly, hon,” Evan put down his magazine and hurried over, giving me no attention whatsoever. “You’re looking so much better.” He leaned down and gave her a quick squeeze, which she returned. I wasn’t surprised by the spontaneous affection so much as I was by Evan’s unconcern about wrinkling his shirt. “First day out of the hospital, hm?” He beamed at her, patting her hand like she was an invalid or something.
Which she technically was, but whatever.
“Have you been to the house yet? Has Nicki shown you the guestroom?” He took the handles of Kelly’s wheelchair as if he’d done it a million times, and wheeled her toward the counter. “Butch and I picked out the bedding ourselves, so don’t let her tell you any different.” Evan gave me a little wink as he passed, making it impossible to be mad at him. “Egyptian cotton will feel so much better on your skin than those cardboard sheets they use in the hospital. I hope you’re not allergic to goosedown.”
“Ahh… you’re such a sweetheart,” Kelly said. “A nice, soft bed sounds great. I’ve got bruises in places I didn’t know I had.” I was amazed at how easy these two were with each other.
My best friend and my sister; one I’d known forever and one I’d never known.
“We haven’t been to the house yet. Nicki and I went straight from the hospital to make the funeral arrangements for Peaches.”
Evan’s eyes flew to mine, horrified. He’d obviously forgotten.
Kelly’s voice sounded strained. “Then we came by here to find her an outfit to be buried in.”
Evan’s face changed. Now it looked as if he was the one about to cry. He reached out and snagged me with one arm, pulling me close, and put his other hand on Kelly’s shoulder.
“It would be an honor,” Evan said, “if you would allow me to help. What did you have in mind?” He gave me a reassuring squeeze, and I squeezed back, knowing I was comforting him as much as he was comforting me, the little drama queen. I was already mentally debating between a peach chiffon or a dark blue brocade. Both dresses were appropriate, and equally lovely.
“Pink,” Kelly said. She glanced up at me over her shoulder. Then she leaned back to look at Evan and said again, very decisively. “She liked pink.”
“Pink it is, then,” Evan said.
I sighed, not even bothering to argue. Evan wheeled Kelly toward the better dresses while I sank into the chair behind the counter.
“Don’t get too comfy in the cat bird seat, young lady,” Evan called over his shoulder. “You can help, too.”
The cushion beneath me was still warm from Evan’s body heat. It had already been quite a morning, and there was a lot more of the day to get through. “You two go ahead. I’ll be right here.”
Evan shot me a look, but I gave him a bland stare in return. Let him take this one - he was the one who insisted I be sisterly, after all. Let him play nursemaid for a while.
“So,” Evan’s attention returned to Kelly and the clothing racks, “tell me about Peaches.”
Kelly hesitated, then said, “She had dark hair.”
Evan started sifting through the dresses. “Okay, dark hair, liked pink… what size do you think she wore? Eight, ten, twelve, maybe?” He held up a blush-colored suitdress with a short jacket, very Jackie O.
“Ten or twelve, I think.” Kelly shook her head at Evan’s offering. “But that’s way too conservative. Peaches was no wallflower. She was more like Nicki.”
Evan’s eyebrows shot up. He looked directly at me. “Oh, really?” he said to Kelly. “Do tell.”
Kelly was looking at me, too. I was so surprised I kept my mouth shut.
“She liked bright clothes and she wore too much makeup,” Kelly smiled, though her eyes were shiny with tears, “and she was funny - I mean, really funny - without even meaning to be.”
Evan’s mouth dropped, and so did my heart. At least for a second… then it did that fluttery thing.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this - I’d been treating Peaches Davis like a stranger. It seemed easier that way. After all, I’d only met her briefly, in my dreams, and by then she was already dead.
“You would’ve liked her.” Kelly was still talking. “And she would’ve liked you.”
To my horror, I teared up. I hate to cry - absolutely hate it - and I’d done enough of it the last few months. I wasn’t about to join in a group hug, so I jumped up and went into the back office. I needed a minute.
“Hey, are you okay?” Evan followed me right in, baby blues full of concern. The man had a sweet side a mile deep.
“I’m okay.” I snatched a tissue off the desk and dabbed at my eyeliner, already finished with the waterworks. “I just didn’t expect to hear that, you know?”
Evan tilted his head, and in typically blunt fashion pointed out, “But isn’t it great? Now you actually know who you take after.”
I shot him a look. “I take after myself, remember?” I’d always made it a point of pride to be different, unique. My adoptive parents and my upbringing might be pure middle class Georgia, but not me.
Evan waved a hand in dismissal. “Style is one thing, girlfriend, genetics is another. If I’m not mistaken, that’s your twin out there, and she just told you that you’re a lot like your mother. That’s pretty cool.”
Trust Evan not to let me hide from myself, even when I wanted to. I changed the subject.
“I saw another ghost today.”
Evan blanched. He hadn’t gotten over what happened the last time. “What? I thought that was done… over with?” His eyes darted around the office.
“Not here, silly. At the funeral home.” I lifted the coffee pot and checked the contents. Still hot. I poured myself a cup while I told Evan the rest.
“A woman in the ladies room was looking for her married boyfriend… some local big-wig. They were both killed in a car accident.” I stirred in some sweetener. “She said if she had to go to Hell, she wasn’t going without him. They’d been having an affair for years, and she was pretty pissed about winding up dead instead of married.”
I turned, and there was Kelly behind Evan, her wheelchair filling the open doorway.
Evan saw where my eyes went, and attempted a graceful save. “Kelly… would you like some coffee? Nicki’s feeling better now.”
She turned down his offer with a shake of the head, eyeing me oddly. “You were telling the truth in the car, weren’t you?”
I couldn’t help it… I looked at Evan and he looked at me. I’d never been a very good liar, and I had no idea what to say.
“You really do see dead people.” Kelly was very calm considering her new sister was a nutcase. “Now we absolutely have to go back for Keith Gilhooly’s funeral.”
Hot coffee sloshed over the rim of my cup, wetting my fingers. I held it away so it didn’t drip on my shoes.
“Oh, no, we don’t.” I had no desire to revisit Psycho Barbie’s Playhouse. She’d dissipate eventually, or something.
“Oh yes, we do,” Kelly said. I recognized that stubborn look on her face as similar to one I’d seen in a mirror, many times. “You were right. I saw him. I talked to him.” She rolled further into the room. “We have to help him.”
I put down my coffee mug with a groan.
“You… you see them, too?” Evan breathed. He didn’t have to say who ‘them’ was.
Kelly glanced at him, face serious. Her eyes begged Evan to be honest. “You’d tell me if this was all a big joke, right? ‘Cause if this is all an act to get rid of me, you guys are going to way too much trouble.” She looked at me again. “All you have to do is tell me the truth. I’m a big girl - I can take it.”
“I did tell you the truth!” Dammit. “You were the one who lied… you said you didn’t see him!”
Evan made an exasperated noise. “Calm down, ladies.” He stepped between us, helping himself to my rapidly cooling coffee. He took a sip, then grimaced, preferring it black. “Let me get this straight. You went the funeral home and you both saw a ghost?”
Kelly didn’t answer, so I nodded.
“Only not the same one?”
I nodded again, miserable.
“Oh my.” Evan leaned against the desk, one Prada shoe crossed casually over the other. “You girls sure know how to put the ‘fun’ back in ‘funeral’.”
Atlanta in the springtime is a beautiful thing; pink and purple azaleas carpet the hillsides, the white dapple of dogwood everywhere you look.
I couldn’t enjoy a minute of the passing scenery, even though I adored Atlanta, adored azaleas, and adored vintage cars like this cool old Mustang. To be cruising down Stone Mountain Freeway in one, top down, should’ve been a real treat, but my stomach was churning. AC/DC was no longer blaring on the radio, but I was on my own private highway to hell.
“It was a woman, you know,” Sammy said casually. He drove one-handed, resting an elbow out the Mustang’s open window. The wind whipped his short blonde hair. “Women have always been my downfall.”
“You’re going to blame women for your downfall?” I wasn’t buying it. “It takes two, buddy.”
Sammy shook his head, smiling a little. “Not all women, Nicki. Just one woman.”
“Oh, I see. Some woman broke your heart and that’s when you decided to become evil.” I couldn’t believe I was talking to the Devil this way. “I’ve heard this same sob story at Goth bars all over Atlanta. Can’t you come up with a better line than that?”
There was silence, and for a moment I worried that I’d gone too far.
“She didn’t break my heart.” Sammy shook his head. He was watching the road, but his thoughts were obviously elsewhere. “Lilith was only doing what she was created to do.”
Stone Mountain Freeway was dotted with scenic rest stops overlooking the mountain. Sammy slowed, pulling into one. The Mustang eased to a stop with a sluggish crunch of gravel, and he cut the engine.
“It’s been eons since I’ve felt the need to explain myself.” He laughed a little, as though finding such an idea hard to believe, then looked away, toward the trees.
I said nothing, and after a moment, Sammy slipped off his Ray Bans and turned his head, piercing me with those blue eyes. “Hear me out.”
I sighed, resigned to hearing a load of crap, and wanting only to get it over with so I could go home. The front seat seemed a bit cramped all of a sudden, his lean, jean-clad leg far too close to mine. “Go ahead.” I checked my watch. “You’ve got about forty minutes left on your hour. Tell me your story.”
“I was an angel once.” Sammy said it simply, as a statement of fact. He lifted a hand—bare of rings today, I noted—and waved it toward the clouds over Stone Mountain. “Long ago, I rode the heights of glory with my celestial brothers, heights you could never imagine.” For just a moment, his face was rapt, but the look was fleeting, marred by the sardonic curl of a lip. “Then I made the mistake of looking down, turning my eyes from the heights and letting myself be distracted by the blue-green bauble known as Earth.”
How weird to hear the planet referred to as a cosmic marble.
“I saw a woman.” Sammy’s gaze turned inward now, remembering. “She was gathering fruit,” here he smiled, ”just as the legends say, but she… she was the real fruit. More delectable than the reddest apple, the ripest peach, sent to tempt mankind with her sweet juices.”
I shifted, uncomfortable with the erotic imagery.
“There was no shame,” Sammy murmured, almost to himself, “no shame in what we did. Was she not placed in that garden to arouse man’s desire? If poor Adam, writhing in his mortal coils, was powerless in her grasp, then how was I, an angel already so attuned to ecstasy, to resist her?”
My mouth fell open.
“You’re blaming Eve?” It’d been many years since I’d been in Sunday school, but even a bad girl like me was familiar with the story of the Garden of Eden.
“Lilith.” He shook his head. “Her name was Lilith. Storytellers always tinker with the facts.”
Whatever. “You’re blaming Lilith for tempting you and getting you kicked out of Heaven?” This was a total reversal of the Bible story, and quite frankly, not one I was buying. “I suppose she waved a couple of palm fronds to get your attention, and then took advantage of your delicate angel sensibilities.”
Why do guys always blame it on the woman?
Sammy rolled his eyes at my sarcasm. “You don’t understand, Nicki. Lilith was no innocent; she’d already known the touch of a man. I was the innocent. I knew nothing of the physical—I was an archangel, for Heaven’s sake! But Lilith wanted much more than a naked ape and his pitiful little banana. She caught me spying on her, and seduced me, I swear it.”
“Be honest, Sammy. You saw it, you wanted it, you took it.” I felt a raw flash of jealousy at the mental image I’d created, and hated myself for it. “For all I know, Lilith was happy in her little garden, tending her little plot, being faithful to her man. You talk of being seduced—how in the world was Lilith supposed to resist you?”
I could’ve bitten my tongue, but it was too late.
Sammy smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes, which gave me a chance to look away. The guy’s sex appeal was immense, and I couldn’t help but wonder if other parts of him were, too.
“I haven’t finished my story yet,” he said mildly.
“What’s your real name?” If we were going to have this conversation, I felt better leading it than trying to follow it.
The way he said “Samuel” was odd—two syllables instead of three, emphasis on “mael”.
Male. Most definitely.
I shifted in the seat to face him, shoulder against the car door. “That’s it?” I was highly skeptical. “What about Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Great Satan?”
Sammy shrugged. “You asked my name, not what people call me. Besides, flattered as I am at the comparison, I’m not that high in the Underworld hierarchy. Satan is much more imposing in person.” He flashed me a smile. “Though I’m much better looking.”
Now I was even more skeptical. “You’re telling me you’re not the Devil.”
“A minor demon only.” Sammy reached between his knees and adjusted his seat, sliding it back. “One among many. We are Legion, after all.”
My blood ran cold.
“You’re a liar.” No one could be more devilishly imposing than he was.
Sammy looked at me intently, bright blue eyes very serious.
“That’s true. I’m a liar.” He looked very different without his usual sexy smirk. “But I’m not lying now.”
I had a flashback to one of my favorite movies when I was a kid; a fantasy adventure called Labyrinth. In it, a fantastically costumed and very sexy David Bowie plays a wicked Goblin King, out to corrupt an innocent young girl. The sweet young thing has only her wits to save her as she wends her way through the labyrinth, her unwanted attraction to the Goblin King distracting her at every turn.
But I was no sweet young thing, and this guy was no David Bowie.
He looked a lot more like Billy Idol, which made my situation much, much worse. I loved Billy Idol.
“What do you want from me?” I felt panicky all of a sudden, claustrophobic despite the fact that we sat in an open convertible. The Mustang was in full sight of the road and any passing cars.
“You know what I want from you, Nicki.”
“I already told you, back in Savannah, that I wasn’t going to help recruit any souls for your ‘army’.” I was beginning to feel desperate. “I don’t need that on my conscience.”
“At least you have one.” Sammy said quickly, looking at me curiously. “What does it feel like?”
I was hardly qualified to answer that question.
“Just leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that.”
Now I was getting pissed. “Why not? What did I ever do to you?”
He shook his head, not taking his eyes from me. “Nicki, when I’m in the flesh, I’m ‘in the flesh’.”
My throat went dry.
“Your flesh calls to mine, and when that happens, I’m powerless against it.”
Holy shit. The Devil had the hots for me.
“Just as I was powerless when I first saw Lilith, there in the garden.”
I really didn’t know what to say, so I kept quiet. The moment seemed surreal—the swish of cars as they passed, the sun beating down on my head, Sammy’s voice saying things I didn’t want to hear.
“It’s part of my punishment, you see.” His lip curled in a way that was already disturbingly familiar. “Lust is what I chose over paradise, so lust is now what rules me.” He glanced down at his lap, and added, “Even as we speak.”
I refused to look. I wasn’t going to look. My eyeballs would burn in their sockets before I looked.
But just for a second, a split-second, before my eyes jerked back to the Mustang’s dashboard. So what if the Devil knew how to fill out a pair of jeans?
“Gee, that looks painful. You should put some ice on it.”
Sammy laughed, low in his throat. But he didn’t move any closer, and that was good.
A dragonfly hovered in the grass near the car. I focused on the shimmer of its wings, letting it ground me, but my heart was racing.
“You told me you could fix things for Joe,” I said flatly.
“That I can.” Sammy sighed. “But I’m not ready to yet.”
“That was really crappy, what you did.” Anger felt better than panic, so I latched onto the feeling with both hands. “Sending Crystal to creep me out like that,” I shuddered at the memory of the anorexic girl’s possession, “and forcing me into saying those things about Joe.” I turned my head and glared at him. “And putting it on the news? Joe’s never done anything to you! You may have ruined his career!”
“Oh, pish.” He waved a hand, obviously not caring.
“Pish? What the hell kind of word is pish?”
Sammy laughed at the look on my face. “Sorry, when you’ve lived as long as I have you sometimes get the current slang wrong. I believe the modern-day equivalent would be ‘whatever’.”
I was not amused.
“Look.” He shifted in his seat, lifting a knee to rest partly on the console between us. “I brought you out here to tell you my story, not to talk about your boyfriend.”
“Your story doesn’t add up, Sammy.”
“My point in telling you about Lilith is to explain why I do what I do. Don’t you want to hear my side?”
“You go around ruining people’s lives because you couldn’t keep your pitchfork in your pants? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
“I was tempted, Nicki. I was deliberately tempted, then punished for making the wrong choice.” His voice turned bitter. “Apparently ‘sleeping with the daughters of men’ was a cosmic no-no, but it would’ve been nice to know that ahead of time. I didn’t ask to be created any more than you asked to be born. Why should I be punished for following the instincts I was given at creation? Should you be punished for being who you are?”
Sammy’s argument was making a little more sense than I wanted it to.
“So now I do to others what was done to me. I tempt, and then watch as others fall prey to temptation, just as I did. Every time it happens—and it always happens—it proves that I was treated unfairly. Perhaps one day the proof will be overwhelming, and I’ll be forgiven and allowed back into the celestial fold.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. “You think that what you do is the way to forgiveness? That’s really twisted.”
For the first time, I saw a hint of impatience in his face. “I’ve had a millennium to become that way. What’s your excuse?”
My mouth fell open, but I shut it pretty quickly. Dissed by the Devil… what’s a girl to do?
“Look at it this way.” Sammy cocked his head, blond hair gleaming in the sun. His bone structure was beautifully male—cheekbones to die for, big hands, strong chin. “Maybe I don’t like being evil… did you ever think of that? Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe temptation can be resisted.” He leaned toward me, leather creaking. His bright blue gaze held me pinned. “But if I’m right, then we’re wasting precious time here, Nicki. You and I would be so good together. I know you feel it.”
Problem was, I did feel it. I’d felt it the moment I’d first laid eyes on him last Halloween, in a club called the Vortex. Back when I’d thought he was a real person. The attraction had been immediate and intense, but I was committed to Joe then, and I was committed to him now. I hadn’t known who Sammy really was until much later, and by then he’d been much easier to resist.
A faint whiff of his aftershave reached me. Something subtle, yet spicy, smelling of heat, desire, decadence. I was glad I was sitting down, because my knees were weak. I’d always been a sucker for guys who smelled as great as they looked; it always made me wonder how they tasted.
“Take me home,” I said abruptly.
Fine lines crinkled around Sammy’s eyes as he smiled. He didn’t come any closer, but he didn’t pull away, either. “I know you want me, Nicki. Why are you making it so—” he lifted one perfectly arched eyebrow, “—hard?”
“Take me home.”
My voice was rising, and with good reason. I was this far from a panic attack—Sammy was about to have an hysterical woman on his hands.
Or his hands on a hysterical woman.
Either scenario was a distinct possibility.
“You said you’d be a gentleman,” I blurted. “I listened to your story, just like we agreed, and the answer is still no. Take me home.”
He leaned back, and I breathed a little easier. My heart was pounding like a scared rabbit’s. Not a good thing for a woman with a heart murmur.
“You do realize that I can make your life a living hell, don’t you?” His tone was conversational, not angry at all.
“You mean you haven’t started yet?”
Sammy chuckled as he reached between his knees, readjusting his seat. He slipped on his Ray Bans and turned the key, bringing the Mustang’s engine to life.
“Oh, I’ve only just begun, Nicki.” He turned his head, giving me a wicked grin. “I’ve only just begun.” His hand moved in my direction, and I jumped, but he was only reaching for the gearshift. Gravel crunched as he aimed the car toward the highway. “Buckle up.”
“Hey… wait a minute.” The hair on the back of my neck rose—I hadn’t forgotten the terms of our agreement. “You said if I listened to your story and still said ‘no’, you’d leave me alone.”
Sammy barely glanced in his side view mirror as he pulled out onto Stone Mountain Freeway. “Surely you know me better than that by now.” The wind whipped his short blond hair, making it spikier than ever.
He was driving a small Mercedes coupe now, all black, inside and out. The leather seats were soft as butter, and heated. As we drove down Moreland I stared out the window at my store, Handbags and Gladrags, and saw it as others might see it: a funky little store with a color-changing Christmas tree in the window, looking cheerful but lonely on a chilly December night.
“I meant it when I said I missed you, you know.” Sammy was watching the road, having made no threatening moves. He’d held the door open for me as I’d gotten in, but seemed careful not to touch me, which I appreciated. I felt trapped, manipulated, and extremely nervous—we were enclosed in a cocoon of silence and privacy, when I knew better than to be alone with him.
“I’m sure you’ve had plenty of other souls to torment,” I said lightly, hoping bravado would get me through the few blocks to my house. He hadn’t asked for directions, I’d noticed, making a right turn without my prompting.
“Torment.” He laughed. “What do you know of torment, Nicki?”
I didn’t answer.
“Torment is wanting something very badly, yet knowing you can’t have it,” he said. “Torment is loving someone, knowing you can never be together.”
“Love,” I countered. “What do you know of love, Sammy?”
He shot me a sideways grin. “Your tongue gets no less sharp when you’re tipsy and overwhelmed. What does it take to be licked with it instead of flayed with it?”
His attempt to shock me failed, except for a tiny little tingle in my nether regions that no one needed to know about. “Don’t start with me,” I said, reaching for my purse. “I’ve still got my pepper spray.”
Even in the dark I could see him smiling. “Why on earth do you keep threatening me with pepper spray? We both know you’re not going to use it, and even if you did, it wouldn’t hurt me. I come from a very hot climate, remember?”
A weak joke, but one that made me smile a little in the dark.
“I love peppers, in fact. The hotter the better. I know a great Mexican place in midtown. May I take you there some time?”
Stunned, I just looked at him. “Did you… did you just ask me on a date?”
I couldn’t read his expression—he was concentrating on the road, but his shrug spoke volumes. “What if I did?” he asked.
“I can’t go out with you!” To my relief, he’d just turned onto my street. I could see the streetlight in front of my house, and there was my house itself, front porch light gleaming. Dad set it up on a timer years ago, just for nights like these.
As if there ever were any nights like these.
“Why not?” He’d reached the driveway and pulled in, putting the car in park. Shifting so he faced me in the seat, he asked me directly, “Is it because you want me as much as I want you? Because you burn for me like I burn for you?”
Shocked, I had a hard time formulating an answer beyond an automatic “No!”
“Who’s the liar now,” he whispered. He reached a hand toward my face, slowly, while I sat frozen, a mouse hypnotized by a cobra. “You’re afraid that if I touched you, just once, the way I want to touch you, you’d burst into flame.” His fingers came close, so close to my cheek, but he held back.
“Don’t,” I whispered, completely unnecessarily. His scent was familiar to me now: pomegranates, chocolate, rumpled sheets made of silk.
“Admit it,” he murmured, holding my eye. The porch light gleamed in his short blond curls. “Just admit it. That’s all I ask.”
“Yes,” I whispered, shakily. Admitting it was not the same as acting on it. “But you’d burn me to a cinder, and laugh while you did it.”
His face drew nearer, while my heart beat a crazy tattoo. “You know all my secrets,” he murmured, “all my limitations. You know I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
His breath smelled of cloves, and I couldn’t help but remember that kiss… that one kiss he’d claimed as a forfeit when last I saw him. I’d tried for months not to think of it, but the moment came rushing back—the breathless, expectant swoop of a roller coaster, the faintest brush of his tongue against mine.
“You want me,” he said, low in his throat. His blue eyes gleamed in the darkness, and his presence filled the car: potently male, simmering with juices and brimming with heat. “I know you do.” A sexy curl of a lip as he drew closer. “I can smell it. You smell so sweet, little Nicki… so very, very sweet…”
A sharp rapping on window behind me made me jerk as if stung. Sammy pulled back as we both heard an angry male voice say, “Open the door, Nicki. What the hell is going on?”
It was Joe, who’d evidently been waiting at my house for God knows how long.
It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that I was in deep shit.
Previously published as part of the paranormal anthology, "Weddings From Hell": A missing bridesmaid, some embarrassing relatives, and a "girls night out" gone bad land Nicki Styx in the middle of a murder mystery. Can she expose the killer, put a poor girl's soul to rest, and still look calm, cool and collected while wearing
the ugliest bridesmaid dress on earth?
“How did I let myself get sucked into this?” I wailed into the phone. “I’m a replacement bridesmaid, and the dress is hideous! It makes me look like a giant fruit salad. With a hat.” I deliberately didn’t tell Evan that the bridesmaid I was replacing was dead. My best friend and business partner, Evan lived for fashion, and I knew it was easier for him to talk about that than my dubious “gift” of being able to see and talk to the dead.
“What did you expect, Nicki?” Evan wasn’t the least bit surprised about the ugly dress. “You’re lucky Debbie didn’t stick you with a tube top and Daisy Duke shorts.”
I sighed. “Yeah. At least there were no sequined flip-flops.”
“Don’t be in the wedding if you don’t want to do it—come down with something contagious or something.”
“I have to do it,” I said glumly, finding myself, once again, in the position of having to explain why I was doing something I didn’t want to do, for someone I didn’t want to do it for. Do unto others, Nicki, as you would have them do unto you. “Debbie needs four bridesmaids to balance out the groomsmen, and she’s only got three sisters.” Darlene, Diane and Donna. Or as I privately thought of them: Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.
It wasn’t their fault, really—the gene pool was obviously tainted. Debbie was okay in a clueless sort of way, but her sisters were another matter. Prickly as sandspurs, and just as irritating.
“Those cousins of yours are walking advertisements for birth control,” Evan said, echoing my thoughts exactly. “Didn’t your aunt know that she was supposed to swallow the pill instead of trying to hold it between her knees?”
“Well, since Uncle John never seemed to learn the alphabet past the letter ‘D’, I imagine birth control was a foreign concept. They probably think oral sex means talking about it instead of doing it.”
Evan laughed, and I felt a little better. A girl deserved to be snarky when she was going through an ugly bridesmaid dress crisis.
I stared out the window of my car at the parking lot of Bebe’s Bridal. There was only one other car, a dusty old Camry that obviously belonged to the saleslady.
“I can’t wait to get home. Joe promised to be waiting with a bubble bath and a glass of wine.”
Evan made a purring noise. “Ooo, I need to get your hunky boyfriend and my hunky boyfriend together to talk about how to treat a lady.”
“Forget it, you fairy,” I said goodnaturedly. “If you got your greedy little hands on Joe I’d never get him back.”
I heard the distant tinkle of the shop bell through the phone, and knew that a customer had just come into Handbags and Gladrags. Our store was the coolest vintage shop in Little Five Points, Georgia, and Evan was manning it while I was out in the boondocks fulfilling family obligations.
“Push the Led Zeppelin tee-shirts,” I said, “we’re over-inventoried.”
“Climbing the Stairway to Heaven as we speak,” Evan answered gaily. “Drive carefully.”
He hung up, and I snapped the phone closed and dropped it on the passenger seat. Gripping the steering wheel in both hands, I let my head fall forward until it rested there, too. I closed my eyes and tried to think positively—I was doing it for Mom. Aunt Nadine was her only sister, which is how I’d ended up with such a dorky middle name.
Nicholette Nadine Styx, sucker extraordinaire.
“Don’t be such a drama queen,” my Mom would’ve said, if she’d lived past my twenty-second birthday. “It’s only one day. You can handle one day, can’t you?”
“Yes, Mom,” I replied dutifully, though there was no one there to hear it. Then I buckled my seat belt (another lesson from Mom), and started the car. As I was backing out of my space, I happened to glance at the saleslady’s Camry again, and this time I noticed that someone had used their finger to write a message in the red clay dust that coated the passenger side door.
“Help Me,” it said.
“Wash Me” would be more appropriate.
Making a mental note to run my Honda through the car wash when I got back to Little Five Points, I pulled out of the parking lot, already dreading my return visit to pick up the newly altered Carmen Miranda dress.
“Don’t let her do it,” came a woman’s voice from the back seat.
“Shit!” I jumped, swerved and nearly drove myself into a roadside ditch.
“Don’t let her,” the voice repeated.
I slammed on the brakes, heart pounding. Afraid to turn around, I checked the rear view mirror.
Gathering my nerve, I swiveled my head to look, glad there was currently no traffic in Hogansville.
The back seat was empty, but there was a dark spot on the upholstery—it looked wet.
“What the hell?”
Thoroughly spooked, I sat there, engine idling. You’d think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now—the girl in the bridal shop wasn’t the first spirit I’d ever seen, and somehow I knew she wouldn’t be the last.
“Hello?” Speak now or forever hold your peace, Spirit. “Don’t let ‘who’ do ‘what’?”
“Great,” I muttered. “Just great.” Hoping the spot was just water and nothing more ominous, I headed home.
If I checked the rear view mirror a little more frequently than I needed to, nobody knew it but me.
Copyright © 2017 Terri Garey, All Rights Reserved