Autumn Bones (Agent of Hel #2)

4,625
04.03.2019

Of course she did.

“Just keep your distance and don’t get in our way.” There was a hint of growl in Cody’s voice. “Daise?”

“Hammer or lantern?” I asked him in response, gesturing with my full arms. “I can’t do both.”

He extended one hand. “Hammer. The last time I touched something Hel gave you, I got frostbite.”

Stacey raised the video camera. “What exactly are you doing?”

“Ghostbusting,” I said shortly. “And will you please get the fuck out of our way, Stacey!”

She did, but she trailed after us. Our footsteps boomed on the metal ramp that provided access to the Osikayas from the dock. Inside the ship, we could hear shrieks and more gabbling voices coming from the ballroom on the upper deck.

In case I haven’t made it clear, the SS Osikayas is a seriously big ship. Think Titanic on a slightly smaller scale and without the tragic ending. Back in her heyday, she was a passenger steamship on the Great Lakes. She had more than a hundred staterooms, some of them with private baths, which was pretty impressive for the time. Some of the original furnishings are long gone, but structural elements like the gleaming mahogany grand staircase with its gilded balustrade remain.

I followed Cody up the staircase and along the state deck toward the ballroom—or at least I did until Cody froze.

“What?” Stacey said behind me. “What is it?”

I ignored her.

The ghost was blocking the entrance to the dining hall and ballroom, trapping the remainder of the wedding party inside—and make no mistake, it was a ghost. A ghost bride, straight out of a Tim Burton movie. She wasn’t entirely transparent, but she wasn’t opaque, either. Her misty figure hovered a few inches above the floor, her head canted to one side at an unnatural angle, her feet dangling in ivory-colored satin pumps.

Cody and I exchanged a glance. “Right,” I said, and took the lead, hoisting the spirit lantern.

The ghost in the doorway turned, creating an eddy of cold air that smelled like rotting lilies.

I sucked in my breath and promptly gagged on the scent. There was a long tulle bridal veil knotted around the apparition’s neck. Her face was dark and mottled. Her eyes bulged in their sockets, the whites laced with a patchwork of broken blood vessels, and her tongue protruded from her lips, swollen and blue.

“’Ere’th my huthband?” the ghost bride asked me, forcing out the words with difficulty. She held out her arms in a pleading gesture. “’Ave oo theen my huthband?”

Ew. And yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Something very, very bad must have happened on her wedding night.

“No,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen him. But you don’t belong here, ma’am. This isn’t your place anymore. And I’m here to help you find your way back to where you can rest in peace.”

I opened the shutter on the spirit lantern, and radiant white light tinged with an ethereal hint of blue spilled forth. The ghost flew backward, arms windmilling, her unlikely shadow manifesting behind her on the worn green carpeting. In the ballroom beyond her with its hand-carved mahogany wall panels and etched-glass skylights, wedding guests cried out in alarm at the sudden change of events.

Cody darted past me, hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. “Hold it steady, Daise!”

I did.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on the fact that beneath the carpeting, the floors of the Osikayas were steel. Cody’s hammer rang out with a resounding metallic clang, but his nail simply fell over.

He grimaced at me. “Sorry.”

The ghost drifted, toes trailing over the carpeting. “’Ere’th my huthband?” she asked a pair of bridesmaids in lavender satin huddled in a corner, clutching each other. “’Ave oo theen my huthband?”

Eyes screwed shut tight, they shook their heads.

“Oh, my God!” Stacey Brooks was in the middle of the ballroom, camera raised. “This is fantastic!”

I flashed her with the spirit lantern.

“Ow!” She glared at me.

“Daisy!” Cody pointed toward the far end of the ballroom, where there was an inlaid parquet dance floor. “We’ve got to get her over there.”

“Right.” Now that the ghost was no longer blocking the exit, wedding guests were making a break for it, including the tear-streaked living bride and her new husband. As the groom shouldered past me, I grabbed his arm, thinking one guy in a tuxedo looked a lot like any other. “You. I need you to go stand over there in the far corner.”

He gaped. “Are you out of your mind?”

My temper flared, and I channeled my anger into my voice, letting it crack like a whip. “Goddammit, just do it! Do it for your bride!”

It worked. The groom stumbled across the room to stand trembling in the corner of the dance floor.

I shuttered the spirit lantern and approached the ghost. “Hey,” I said to her, pointing. “Isn’t that your husband over there?”

Her bulging eyes blinked, or at least they almost blinked. Her eyelids couldn’t quite close. “’Oo!” she moaned, drifting toward the dance floor, toes dangling, head canted. “’Ow could oo do thith do me?”

In the corner, the groom shuddered and covered his face with his hands, peering between his fingers in terror. I waited until the apparition had reached the edge of the parquet before opening the shutter on the spirit lantern again, letting the brilliant light cast the ghost’s shadow on the squares of polished wood.

From the right side of the dance floor, Cody flung himself onto the parquet, pulling off a knee slide worthy of Kevin Bacon in Footloose. He planted a nail smack-dab in the center of the ghost bride’s shadow, raised the hammer, and pounded the nail into place in one solid, satisfying blow.

The ghost vanished.

My knees gave way beneath me and I sat down abruptly on the floor.

“Daisy,” Stefan’s voice said behind me. He came around to crouch in front of me, pupils like pinpoints in the lantern’s crystalline blaze. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” I closed the shutter on the spirit lantern. “Delayed reaction. Give me a hand up?”

“Of course.” He took my free hand and rose, pulling me effortlessly to my feet. We stood there for a moment, hands joined. I could feel my residual fear and anger draining away into his deep, still center.

I cleared my throat and pulled my hand away. “I’m fine. You should see to the wedding guests.”

Stefan inclined his head. “As you say, Hel’s liaison.”

I couldn’t help glancing toward Cody. A flare of green shimmered behind his eyes, but his expression was studiously neutral.

With the aid of Stefan and his Outcast crew, we got matters under control in short order, alleviating the worst of the terror among the wedding party and the catering staff. Actually, that’s not fair to the catering staff, who were all Pemkowet locals. Although they were shaken, none of them had panicked.

In fact, it was one of the caterers who identified the ghost for us. “Marjorie Tucker,” she said in a steady voice. She was one of those salt-of-the-earth types with a thick braid of hair that hadn’t been cut for decades, and only her trembling hands betrayed her nerves. “Her family had a summer cottage down the street from me. I was a kid when it happened, but I remember it was 1976, the year of the bicentennial.”

“What happened?” I asked, partly out of morbid curiosity, partly because I planned to enter it in the ledger.

“She caught the groom boinking a bridesmaid in one of the staterooms at her wedding reception,” she said soberly. “Went home and hung herself with her bridal veil. Funny, we always thought it was the Tucker cottage that was haunted afterward.”

“Poor thing.” I felt a surge of indignation on behalf of Marjorie Tucker’s ghost. “Her fiancé must have been a real piece of work.”

The caterer shrugged. “Men.”

Somewhat to my surprise, the wedding party elected to carry on with the reception. Stefan and his crew had siphoned off their shock and fear, leaving them in a state of hectic bravado.

“Thank you,” I said to Stefan. “I appreciate it.”

He gave me one of his courtly bows, his pupils dilated and glittering. The pull I felt from him now wasn’t his inner core of stillness, but the vast hunger that lay beneath it. “You are welcome.”

Without thinking, I raised my mental shield between us. “Um . . . it’s probably best you were going now, right?”

“Yes.” Stefan paused, and I had the impression he was struggling unsuccessfully to regain his usual self-control. “If there is another such incident within the next few hours, it would not be wise to call upon us.”

“Duly noted,” I said. “Sorry—I wasn’t expecting an entire wedding party on the first outing.”

Although his pupils were still huge, Stefan smiled, his unexpected dimples appearing. “You did well.”

“Thanks.”

All in all, I felt pretty good about the incident. I hadn’t screwed up. I hadn’t lost my cool. When an unexpected problem arose, I’d found a solution. Hell, I could already hear the bridegroom in the background, bragging about his role in the whole affair. Even the presence of Stacey Brooks—

I looked around. “Hey, Cody! Where did Stacey go?”

“Huh?” Cody glanced up from a table containing an abandoned serving tray filled with skewers of chicken satay, his mouth full. He chewed, then swallowed. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. She took off a while ago. Why?”

“Just wondering.” Wondering what she meant to do with that footage she shot was more like it.

“She’s fine.” Cody wiped his hands on a napkin, tossing it on the table. “When you get right down to it, she’s pretty ballsy.”

I scowled at him.

He grinned. “Lighten up, Pixy Stix. We did a good job here, didn’t we?”