Wearing his fine suit of man-skin, Baalphegor-Moabites strolled the early morning streets of Boston, taking in the sights of humanity.
He stopped to watch as a deliveryman carefully wheeled a metal cart loaded with baked goods toward the side entrance of a nearby shop and breathed in the succulent aroma of freshly prepared foodstuffs through the nostrils of his flesh mask.
"Watch it, pal," the human said from behind the cart, as he struggled to maneuver it across the sidewalk.
The demon was amused. He called me pal.
It was a wholly satisfying experience to be able to walk among them undetected. The flesh of the large man provided for him by the listener was a perfect fit, much better than some of other skin suits he'd worn on previous visits to the realm of humanity.
"It smells delicious," he commented in the human's tongue, perfectly comfortable in his disguise as he stepped out of the deliveryman's way. Baalphegor was surprised at how quickly it all came back to him. He had not spoken this language in quite some time, but there it was, as if he'd used it only yesterday.
The human scowled. "Wish the same could be said for you." His homely features wrinkled in distaste. "You smell like shit."
The suit of flesh did give off a rather pungent aroma, even though Baalphegor had been very careful not to spill any of the bodily fluids on his person as he had prepared it. But then again, he had been ravenous upon his arrival, and had fed upon the human listener who had helped him to complete his journey.
Baalphegor looked down at the clothing that adorned his disguise and saw that he had gotten quite a bit of his meal on himself.
"Not shit," the traveler from the beyond said with a shake of his large, head. "Blood." He moved his own facial features around beneath the mask, attempting to form a smile.
The deliveryman quickened his pace, and Baalphegor waved farewell as he continued his own journey up Commonwealth Avenue.
He would have loved to spend what time he had remaining exploring the great city of Boston, remembering how it was the last time he had visited. But alas, that wasn't to be the case, for the demon had risked much to travel here for matters most dire.
Matters of life and death.
Since his arrival from beyond the pale, he had walked, refamiliarizing himself with the world that had come to fascinate him so much in his long lifetime. It was truly a most remarkable place, and if he had the capacity to feel emotion, he would have expressed deep sorrow to know that very shortly, it would exist no more.
The Devourer is coming, the demon mused.
Soon the Demogorgon will be here.
Eve shook away the cobwebs of sleep as she padded down the winding staircase of Conan Doyle's home, drawn to the delicious aroma of something cooking.
Passing the grandfather clock in the hall she saw that it was a little after five, and the sun had almost completely set. She loved this time of year, when the sun went down so much earlier, giving her more hours of freedom. Conan Doyle had a spell he could use to protect her from the sunlight, but its effects wore off within a day or two without the sorcerer's constant attention, and the magic did something unpleasant to her. Under the influence of the spell, Eve's skin crawled as though she was covered in filth. It had other side effects as well, including nausea and migraines, if she tried to keep the magic going long term.
Screw that. She preferred the night.
She entered the kitchen, her bare feet slapping on the cold tile of the floor as she went to the refrigerator and pulled open the door. Squire was at the stove, basting something with melted butter. Whatever it was, it had four legs and the remains of wings.
"What the hell is that?" she asked, finding the Tupperware bottle of blood that she kept for her morning pick-me-up.
Squire scowled as he looked at her. "What's it look like?"
"That's why I'm asking," she said, raising her voice before popping the cover off the container for a swig of the viscous fluid.
"It's a turkey, for Christ's sake," he grumbled, finishing up his basting and sliding the rack back into the oven.
"With four legs?" she said, allowing the refrigerator door to slam closed behind her.
"Didn't say it was from around here," the hobgoblin grumbled, placing the container of butter on the counter and removing the thick oven mitt from his hand. "And good evening to you, sunshine," he said with a snarl. "Wake up on the wrong side of the casket, did we?"
"Fuck off," she spat, walking to one of the stools at the island in the center of the room. She took another gulp from bottle. "You know I don't sleep in a casket here."
"And you do at your place?" he asked, going to one of the lower cabinets and removing a pan and a mixing bowl. He placed them on the counter.
"It's not really a casket," she said. "It's more like a sarcophagus. It's really nice."
"I bet," Squire said, pulling out a stool to get at some up the upper cabinets where he retrieved some more baking supplies.
"What's the occasion?" she asked, watching him step down from the stool, arms loaded. "Big, four-legged turkey cooking in the oven, vegetables on top of the stove. Did I oversleep and wake up on Thanksgiving?"
"Mr. Doyle and Ceridwen got back from their travels sometime yesterday, and I thought a little home cooking would be just the thing to welcome them."
"Nothing says welcome home like a four-legged turkey," Eve said with a wink, taking another swig of blood.
"So it's got four fucking legs, what's the big deal?" he asked, pulling a two-tiered step over to the counter and climbing up to work.
"What are you making now?"
"Corn bread." He poured a tablespoon of vegetable oil into the pan, then climbed up onto the counter, turning on the upper oven.
"Jeez, how come I never get a spread like this when I come back?"
"'Cause you're a bitch," Squire said casually, over his shoulder, as he continued preparing the corn bread.
Eve nearly choked. She wiped a crimson dribble from the corner of her mouth. "Have I mentioned how much I hate your guts?"
"Not in the last few minutes," Squire said, pouring ingredients into the large bowl.
"It's nice to see the two of you getting along," an unmistakable voice said, and Eve turned to see Conan Doyle coming into the kitchen. Ceridwen followed, carrying shopping bags from some her own favorite establishments.
"Hey, bossman," Squire said. "Dinner should be ready in an hour or so. I'm making some of that Southern-style corn bread you like."
"You spoil me, Squire," Conan Doyle said, and then turned to Eve. "And how are you, my dear?"
"Just fine." She closed the cap on her bottle, sated for the moment. "How are things in England?"
She noticed the scowl appear on Ceridwen's face.
"Things have changed," the mage replied. "But the rest, I believe, has done us good."
Conan Doyle and Ceridwen looked at each other then, and Eve could have sworn she saw something almost spiritual pass between them. This is good, she thought. The two of them belonged together. Conan Doyle was a pain in the ass normally, but he'd become an even bigger pain when Ceridwen wasn't in his life. It was good they had found each other again.
"I see you did some shopping," Eve said to Ceridwen.
"Why, yes," the Fey sorceress replied, holding up her multiple bags. "Following your advice. I told Arthur that if I am to remain in this world, I would need to adorn myself in raiment befitting my stature."
Conan Doyle slowly crossed his arms, fixing Eve in his patented icy stare.
"Good girl," she said, reaching out to pat Ceridwen's arm. "You're learning."
The sound of the oven door slamming caused them all to start, and they looked over to see Squire standing on the counter where he had just placed his corn bread in the oven.
"Oh yeah," the hobgoblin said, using the portable step to climb down. "Before I forget, I met with Detective Hook yesterday about a couple'a bodies they found in an alley off Tremont."
Eve saw the change in Conan Doyle's demeanor immediately, and the atmosphere in the kitchen turned serious.
"And your findings?" Conan Doyle asked.
"Not really sure," Squire replied, washing his hands and then drying them with a hand towel. "One of the bodies was skinned, and the other chowed on. Think we might have something demonic walking the streets."
Eve frowned. Demonic. The word brought a sudden recollection of her adventure at Sultan's, and the moment in the alley outside the dance club when she had sensed a presence.
"Now that you mention it, I might've sensed something nasty in the air the other night," she said.
"And this is the first you've thought to mention it?" Conan Doyle asked, giving her the haughty, paternal glare that always made her want to punch him in the face. It never seemed to occur to him how ridiculous it was for him to scold her as though she were a child. Her, of all people.
Eve shrugged. "Dark things are passing through this city all the time. I didn't think of it again until now."
"Until the part with the partially eaten and skinned bodies," Squire suggested.
"Exactly," Eve said with a nod, wanting to jump over the island and smash the cheeky little bugger's potato head against the marble counter.
Conan Doyle stroked his chin, deep in thought.
"Aren't there rules about the demonic walking the earthly plane?" Ceridwen asked.
"Quite right, my dear," the mage said. "But with the way things have been of late, it's hardly surprising that a creature from one hell or another might try to test the rules."
Squire leaned back against the counter, folding his stubby arms across his chest. "So, what do you think?"
"I think a hunting expedition may be in order." Conan Doyle looked at Eve. "May I call upon your services?"
She slid from the stool and slid it back under the island.
"You may, and I think I have just the outfit."
Laughter and gaiety fill the night, as illuminating as the lanterns placed all about the perimeter of the stone amphitheater. At the far side of the Boboli Gardens, away from the Pitti Palace, the Florence Symphony plays beautiful music that seems to pull fairy magic from the evening sky, drawing down the sparkle of the stars themselves.
Or perhaps Dr. Graves has simply had too much champagne.
This place does seem magical tonight, though, an oasis of wealth and laissez-faire amid the desperation of the European war theater. To think that an American could be so welcome in Italy . . . Dr. Graves has been surprised by the reception he has received. Yet Florence has ever and always been a city of light and of art and music, not of war.
Champagne glasses clink. Women in elegant gowns and dapper men walk arm in arm along the paths farther away from the symphony. Chairs have been set up on the garden lawn near the musicians, and those rows are filled, but far more guests seem to prefer to mingle in the gardens, beneath the stars, with the musical accompaniment.
He spots his fiancee, Gabriella, chatting with a young Florentine woman of her acquaintance . . . old friends, reunited. The two wave to him and then smile at one another like schoolgirls. Graves had tried to convince Gabriella to stay behind, but she would not hear of it. If there was danger, she trusted him to deal with it, to keep her safe. He cannot quite bring himself to wish she had stayed back in New York - not when he sees her in this gown, dark ringlets of hair falling around her shoulders, a Roman goddess come to Earth. She leaves him breathless.
And it is good for her to be out of New York for a while. In the States, the newspapers never let her be anything but the fiancee of Dr. Graves, with all that entails. Gabriella is a white woman planning to marry a black man. New York society burns with fascination at the fame Dr. Graves has achieved, and with every aspect of his life, including his engagement. But beneath their fascination, there lurks disdain. No matter how much of a novelty he might become to them, he will never be more than that. Regardless of how many times he might prevent some horrid crime, even saving their lives, he is still a black man.
Professor Zarin would have poisoned their skies, their water, and perhaps even brought the glorious Empire State Building crashing down, if not for him. The society ladies smile and call him a hero. Wealthy men pat him on the back and congratulate him, even thank him for his efforts. But between them always is the distance created by the unspoken acknowledgement of race.
Italy is better. The country is not free from prejudice. Yet here, in this war-torn country, he feels more welcome, more at home. They love him in Europe, and while some might hate him for the color of his skin, there are far more people here who only want to meet him, to know him. Stories of his adventures around the world reach Florence in the newspapers, but by the time they are translated in Italian, his feats have been blown all out of proportion.
Graves has been to dozens of events like this one, but this is one of those rare moments when he does not feel the reluctance and resentment that often accompanies his presence. It is a welcome relief, a chance to exhale from so much time spent holding his breath, holding his tongue.
And the music is sublime.
The symphony transports him with a melody that seems to speak to the heart of him, to the little boy he had once been. He feels sure he knows the tune, as though he's heard it a thousand times in his mind. But perhaps that is the hallmark of true genius in music, that it speaks to the soul with such passion that it seems to be something one has always known.
A waiter passes, and Dr. Graves snatches a fluted champagne glass from his tray. He smooths the front of his jacket and begins to navigate the maze of Florentine society that mingles around him. Many people greet him in Italian as he passes. They smile, and some even clap a friendly hand upon his shoulder or arm. Dr. Graves nods and smiles and moves on.
A perfect night. The only way it could be more perfect is if he and Gabriella could dance beneath the stars with the symphony playing. But there will be no dancing for Dr. Graves tonight. He needs to maintain his focus if all of these people are to survive until morning.
The presence of a bomb mars his enjoyment of the evening.
Graves scans the crowd, lifting his champagne flute and hiding behind it as he studies the people around him, looking for anything out of place. He takes a sip. As he lowers the glass he sees a thin, blond man with grim, craggy features look nervously away. The man sets off through the crowd, headed toward the symphony.
Holding his breath, Graves watches as the nervous man looks back once, then continues away skittishly. He is headed directly for the symphony.
Champagne glass in hand, Graves smiles at two silver-haired gentlemen and nods amiably even as he starts after the nervous man.
"Dr. Graves?" one of the silver-haired men says.
He turns to study the man more closely. The gentleman has a professorial air about him and appraises Graves through glasses that sit on the bridge of his nose. His hair is a bit wild and unkempt. He and his companion stand out from the other men in attendance at the celebration. If they are wealthy, they are also eccentric.
"Indeed, sir," he says. "I don't think I've had the pleasure?"
"No, we haven't met, sir," the silver-haired man replies. "I am Doctor Giovanni Arno. This is my associate, Vincenzo Mellace. I must tell you that we are great admirers of yours. We follow your achievements with much enthusiasm."
Graves tries to be polite, but his gaze darts past the men, trying to follow the skittish man as he makes his way through the crowd toward the symphony. He glances at Gabriella, just to be certain she is far, far away from the nervous gentleman.
"I appreciate that," Dr. Graves says. "But many of those stories are greatly exaggerated."
Arno laughs and strokes his beard. "I hope so. I would be deeply troubled if everything I had read was true. Nevertheless we are more interested in your scientific and medical achievements than your leap from a burning zeppelin last month."
Though he needs to extricate himself from these men, to get after the blond man, he cannot help being charmed by Dr. Arno. But they are all in peril, and the danger grows with every moment these men delay him. Several of his agents who travel in the criminal underworld have indicated that Zarin will set off a bomb here in some bizarre attempt to strike at the Axis forces. A number of Italian officials are in attendance this evening, but only a lunatic like Zarin could possibly think killing men and women here would have any influence over the war effort.
Yet from past experience, Graves knows it is just the sort of thing Zarin would do.
He glances toward the symphony, sees the horns gleaming in the starlight. The violinists stand as one and begin to eke out a hauntingly beautiful melody, that same one that seems so familiar to him.
The skittish man is nowhere to be seen.
"Gentlemen, please forgive me," he says, as diplomatically as he is able. "I do appreciate your kind words, but there's a matter of some urgency to which I must attend. If I might seek you out shortly, I'll be only to happy to discuss my experiments and research."
"Oh, yes, of course," Mellace says.
But a frown creases Dr. Arno's forehead. "If you must."
"I must. With apologies."
As he turns and rushes off, weaving through couples who are arm in arm and clusters of men talking business and women talking war, he hears Arno mutter something to his companion.
"Another rude American. I'd hoped otherwise. Perhaps what they say about the Whisper is true, after all."
Then the two men blend with the crowd behind him, their voices gone. The words stay with him, even as he slips past a waiter, moving toward the rows of seated guests and the symphony beyond them. That haunting melody still plays.
And he thinks of the Whisper.
It had been a perfect opportunity for the newspapers in New York and elsewhere to reveal the resentment society felt toward him. When he plays the hero, the world loves him. His achievements in science and his explorations around the globe have made him the pride of New York, a darling of the press. But like tigers, they had lain in wait for the moment when they could turn on him.
The Whisper had provided that moment.
Shortly after Dr. Graves had begun to use his extraordinary mind and the body he has honed to near physical perfection to combat crime and espionage, the Whisper had appeared upon the scene. Graves had seen him as a kindred spirit, another man with extraordinary abilities, dedicated to the betterment of mankind and the defense of the helpless. According to the newspapers, the Whisper was able to hypnotize criminals into changing their ways, using only the power of suggestion. His voice alone could compel them. He was said to have rehabilitated dozens of hardened men in the New York area.
Graves had been hopeful, looking forward to his first encounter with the Whisper. Yet when they finally met, he discovered the truth about the Whisper - whose real name was Simon Broderick. The people deserved to know the truth, the deception that Broderick had perpetrated upon them, the cruelty and evil that lurked within a man they thought of as a hero. Dr. Graves had exposed the Whisper as a fraud.
Simon Broderick had taken his own life.
In New York society, the font from which Broderick had sprung, new bitterness developed toward Graves. Many now hate him for what they perceived as his humiliation of the Whisper, claiming that was what had prompted the man's suicide.
As if they needed another reason to be wary of Dr. Leonard Graves.
And now he has encountered that bitter wariness here in Italy. Perhaps there is nowhere in the world where he could escape it.
Frustrated and angry with himself for the disappointment and resentment that lingers in his heart, Graves moves up to the rear of the seats that have been arranged in the gardens.
The violins have given way to a lilting chorus of horns. He glances at the symphony and starts toward the musicians along the central aisle. Several people notice him, but no one attempts to stop him. Graves peers at each row of guests, searching one side and then the other for the suspicious, stealthy man who darted away upon seeing him.
Only guilt makes a man flee like that.
Whoever the rabbit is, he must be working for Professor Zarin. Which means that the madman truly is up to something here this evening. Perhaps the rumors of a bomb are true.
If so, Graves has to move fast. If he cannot find that man, he realizes, he will have to warn the guests, tell them to evacuate the gardens. He has to get Gabriella out of here. The violins come back in to join the horns and the music rises toward a crescendo that any other night would have lifted his heart.
Frantic, now, he spins around as he moves toward the head of the aisle, right in front of the symphony. The musicians have begun to notice him now. The conductor will not turn, will not allow himself to be distracted, and the music goes on. But a woman in a shimmering bone-white gown points at him, and a round-bellied, balding man stands and begins to bluster at him.
Graves cannot hear him, so near to the music.
He spins again, searching for the skittish man.
How could he have just disappeared?
The melody sways, a haunting air. Then comes a jarring, discordant cello note. Graves frowns and turns to see the cellist pointing past him, toward the Pitti Palace.
The bullet strikes Dr. Graves in the back, scraping spine and ricocheting inside him, punching through his heart.
Death and darkness claimed him, the echo of that discordant cello still in his ears.
On the drive south from Connecticut the weather had taken a turn for the worse. In New York the sky had begun to cloud over and by the time they were passing through Jersey it had begun to rain lightly. A cold November rain.
Clay kept his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel. The Cherokee's wipers shushed out a gentle rhythm. The ghost of Dr. Graves seemed to have weight and substance in the gloom, and when Clay chanced a look over at him, he saw that the spirit had turned to peer out the rain-slicked window into the gray nothing beyond.
Graves had just finished relating the tale of his own murder. Clay had been aware of the basics, but had never known the details. Hearing it from the man who'd lost his life that day made it all the more tragic. The world had lost a great man, but Graves had lost his life and his love.
"It's just like death," the ghost whispered.
A glance at the speedometer told Clay he was going too damned fast. He eased up on the accelerator and edged slightly away from the tractor trailer that careened along in the next lane, water hissing up from under its tires.
"What is?" he asked.
"This. The storm," Graves replied, still staring out the window. "Gray nothing. Only shapes in the mist."
A stranger to death, Clay did not know how to reply to that. They traveled for several minutes with only the shush of the wipers and the patter of the rain for company. Clay thought about turning on the radio but did not want to seem as though he was attempting to prevent further conversation. The highway thrummed beneath them.
"You haven't told me how you know these people in Washington," the ghost said, his voice sounding far away, as though in a dream.
Clay glanced at him. The ghost watched him intently, eyes crystal clear, as though they were the only part of him truly in this world.
"I'm surprised Conan Doyle hasn't shared that part of my background with you."
"Arthur shares only what he wants to share," Graves said.
With a barely amused grunt, Clay nodded. "You've noticed that, have you? That's Doyle, all right."
The ghost shifted, floating slightly forward and sideways. He still appeared to be sitting on the passenger's seat, but didn't seem to notice that his knees were partially lost in the glove compartment of the Cherokee.
"Are you purposely avoiding my question, Joe?"
Clay smiled and reached up to scratch an ear. "You might say that. Not for long, though. It's just that it's not my finest moment."
Dr. Graves did not push, only waited for him to continue. Clay stared out through the Cherokee's windshield at the traffic and the rain, and flexed his fingers on the wheel.
"All right, the simple version. During a period of my life, I lost track of who I really was. Let's say I was confused for a few decades and leave it at that. The point is, some unsavory people in the American government decided my abilities could be put to unpleasant use. That went on far longer than I like to think about, them manipulating me. When it was over, I dealt with those responsible, but there were others . . . they weren't the ones who did it to me, but they could have intervened and chose not to. That's government, for you. The period I refer to as my 'memory lapse' covers the years when you were active, including your death. Given what they were using me for, it's even possible I pulled the trigger myself."
If ghosts could flinch, Graves did. Otherwise it was merely an ectoplasmic shudder, a flicker of the ethereal substance of his spirit.
"You're saying you might have killed me?"
Clay frowned, knuckles tightening on the wheel. "I was joking, but I guess it isn't funny. It's not impossible, but not likely, either. We'll find out in D.C. The point of all of this is that there are people I knew in those days, people who were still alive when it was all over, who owe me for what they did or what they didn't do . . . or just because I let them live."
A grim silence fell between them, then. Neither of them approved of outright killing, but Clay would bend the rules if there was no other choice. Especially in the aftermath of his memory lapse.
"I'm going to call in a marker," the shapeshifter went on. "Professor Zarin was public enemy number one for the better part of a decade back then. I want to see what I can find out about him and about his current whereabouts. Maybe we'll learn something you haven't been able to discover on your own."
This time, when Clay glanced at him, Graves seemed less substantial, as though he had merged with the storm outside, his form made up of mist and rain and gray skies.
"I appreciate your help with this, Clay. I'd be lying if I said I was confident in the investigation I conducted on my own. After that night - after my murder at the symphony - it took me quite a while to accept the truth. Years passed in the tangible world. I had never believed in the afterlife, so getting used to being spectral was very difficult.
"When at last I stopped being so stubborn, I did my best to investigate, but I did nothing but chase threads that led nowhere. At the time I had difficulty manifesting properly and tended to terrify anyone I wished to speak with. All those tabloid reports of people seeing my ghost . . . obviously, those stories are true. That was my investigation, and it's how I encountered Arthur for the first time. Once he had vowed to help me solve my murder, I gladly left it with him."
Clay heard in his tone how much Graves regretted leaving it to Conan Doyle for so many years, but he said nothing. Pointing out the obvious would help nothing.
A soft smile touched the corners of the ghost's mouth, and his eyes lit up.
"What?" Clay asked.
Graves waved a phantom hand as though to brush the question away, but the smile did not go away. He shook his head.
"Sometimes," the ghost said, "especially when I'm in the spirit world, I still hear that one song, the melody that the symphony was playing in the moment the bullet struck me.
"I like to think it's Gabriella, calling me home."