Devil’s Smile

 

Two things about this story:

1. It contains a perspective shift; a section from someone else’s point of view. A great thing about short stories is how you can experiment like this, when it will probably never happen in one of the main novels.

2. You will see Rosa again.

This story takes place before the events of Blood Hound.

 

1.

 

It was just after sunset when she called. I was okay, those are my working hours – I’m somewhat of a night owl, mostly because direct sunlight would set me on fire. And burning to death is so awkward.

I vaulted over my desk to grab the phone, because some moron (me) had left it out of reach. I needed a secretary. “Hello,” I said. “Lucy December, December Investigations, how may I help you?”

“I have a stalker,” she said. Female, a high alto, with a smoothness that suggested, without accent, English as a second language. “And I need your help.”

“All right,” I said, moving back to my desk to grab a pencil. “May I have your name, ma’am?”

“Rosalinde Giancarla,” she said. Well, I was probably right about the language thing. “You’ll need to meet me at my work – 920 Valencia Avenue.”

“Thanks,” I said. “920 Valencia. Got it, Ms. Giancarla. When do you want to meet me?”

“How soon can you be here?” she asked.

“I can get in the car,” I said. “Are you in danger right now?”

“We’ll talk when you arrive,” she answered, and hung up.

I blinked at the phone, and then shrugged. Well, she had sounded urgent enough. And this was a normal case – ordinary, with ordinary issues, and ordinary money. I had a chance to reflect on this while driving there. No monsters, ghosts, or demons. Just an actual human being having troubles with another. For once. Not that this was common in my industry – most detectives spend all their time tracking down cheating spouses or lost children. I had cases like those, too, but they weren’t the only ones.

Monsters exist. Everything exists, just about. And San Francisco is teeming with the supernatural. You can trust me, I’m a vampire. Fangs, bats, everything. But don’t worry, not all of us are terrible – some of us are just jerks. But hey, at least I try to be good. A little. Like most vampires, I started badly. What brought me back from the brink was faith, remembering the religion and morals I knew as a human. And even though redemption is a great, faith-filled theme, so is atonement. Protecting ordinary people started out as a way to make up for some of those nasty early years, though it’s not why I’ve kept doing it. People need help, and I can’t leave them alone. Never could. Never will.

But man, sometimes it was rough. There’s only so much carnage that a person can take without a break. Human cases were relaxing by comparison, and considering the evil shit that humans regularly get up to, that’s saying a lot. So, as cold as it may seem, I was looking forward to this case.

I lucked out in parking. Seriously lucked out. Instead of ending up three blocks away at a garage, I managed to park just across the street from Ms. Giancarla’s workplace. And there it sat, between a coffeehouse and a small clothing store. Madame Rosa’s, it read. And beneath that, Psychic.

…Well, dammit.

To be fair, maybe it didn’t mean anything. A lot of psychics are just ordinary people, cold-reading and giving advice to pay the bills. But a lot of them are also magical practitioners who also need to pay the bills. But come on, I was looking forward to a mundane case.

“All right,” I said, and looked at the facade again. I contemplated arming myself, just in case. A bullet to the face was the best solution for most supernatural monstrosities, but normal people tended to get nervous when thy saw a gun. And since this was California, that went double. Eh, whatever. I holstered the gun inside my coat, and went inside.

I stepped into a small, heavily decorated waiting room. The scent of incense lightly permeated the air, and I recognized a few trappings of what most people think are mystical. This wasn’t a home office, which spoke volumes about her work. Most psychics didn’t have the money to throw around on real estate, especially in an expensive city. Though she hadn’t sprung for better than a few old Reader’s Digests, I noticed that. Cozy, dim lighting, three plush chairs, and a lamp that looked like it might have been old. A rack stood next to the table, populated with a few brochures about astrology and alternative medicine. And ah-ha! What Can Kabbalah Do For You?

“Always gotta appropriate, don’t ya?” I muttered, and leafed through it. That was the thing. The Kabbalah practiced by hippies, hipsters, and Hollywood celebrities was nothing compared to the Kabbalah practiced by mystical Jews for centuries. Well, it was probably better that way. Dabbling in actual magic had consequences.

There were more brochures arranged near the magazines, all about how psychics can help you, the power of alternative medicine, and a healthy diet. I pocketed one of her business cards, and noted the paintings on the walls – landscapes of what looked like Southern Europe. Nothing in the air felt overtly magical, and although that was not necessarily conclusive, it helped put me at ease about the place. She was probably just an excellent cold-reader, a counselor who gave decent advice wrapped up in metaphysical bullshit.

My phone rang. I looked, and saw that it was Lt. Ortiz, who ran the night shift at the local station.

“Hey, Tony,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Are you working?” he asked.

“Yeah, actually, I am,” I said. “What’s up? I can run double, if you’ve got something urgent.”

“Nothing urgent,” he said. “I would like you to review a few recent cases, and tell me if there’s a pattern.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll get on it. What kind?”

“Missing persons cases,” Tony said.

“What makes them special?” I asked.

“The victims possess the same religious affiliation,” he said.

“Christian?” I asked. “Muslim? Jewish? Buddhist? Scientologist?”

“Neopagan and Wiccan,” Tony said.

“Those are two different things,” I said. “And sometimes covers for real supernatural stuff. Okay, I see why there’s a red flag. It could just be coincidence, or maybe a mini-Burning Man or something.”

“One disappearance was inside a locked room,” he said. “And there was an eyewitness.”

I frowned. “What did they see?”

“It’s hard to say,” Tony said. “According to their official testimony, they saw a flash of movement when they opened the door, and then nothing.”

“Okay,” I said. “That could be a lot of things. What about the unofficial testimony?”

When it came to the supernatural, the police were pretty good at dividing believable and unbelievable from official statements.

“She claimed she saw a mummy,” Tony said.

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing. I utterly failed.

“What was that?” Tony asked.

“Gsnrk,” I said.

“Lucy.”

That one word sobered me back up. Okay. Sure.

“Mummies don’t exist,” I said. “Okay, that came out wrong. Undead, cursed mummies who walk the earth don’t exist. Their remains are too old for necromancy to work – a mummy zombie would just shamble itself to pieces. So, I guess they saw bandages?”

“We also recovered a few from the site,” he said. “We can’t identify the fabric.”

“Okay, then,” I said. “Yeah, that’s pretty odd. I’ll keep it in mind, but I’ll take a look when I’m done with this job right now – there’s a lady here who’s being stalked, and I’m hoping her stalker identifies himself really stupidly really fast.”

“I’ll wait for your report,” he said.

“Thanks, Tony,” I said. “See you soon.”

A mummy. Really. Necromancy had a ton of leeway – you could mutate fresh corpses into all sorts of twisted, deranged horrors – but it couldn’t work with spoiled material. Even skeletons needed bones that were at least somewhat fresh, or they just came apart on their own. But hell, if Wiccans were vanishing, it meant there was probably something at work.

And hey, I was sitting in a psychic’s waiting room. Fancy that. Maybe with some serendipity, the guy following her was secretly a mummy.

I listened in on the Giancarla lady as she worked with a customer – my hearing was good, and the walls weren’t too thick – and fulfilled a lot of my assumptions. She was leading her customer’s conversation, drawing information without him knowing it, and using it to put together a halfway decent piece of advice for the guy. Something about what his grandmother would have wanted. I also noticed that she was faking an Italian accent, at least mostly. There had been a little of it in her diction on the phone, but nowhere near the stereotypical job she was doing right now. Still, it sounded natural enough, so maybe she had lived in Italy at some point, or grown up there.

Hey, I was pretty good at this cold reading stuff. Maybe I should become a psychic.

Finally, the door opened, and Rosalinde Giancarla led her customer out. She was beautiful – I know, I know, that’s an objectifying thing to say as an initial impression, but it was the first thing I noticed. She could’ve quit magic and become a supermodel. Or maybe not, as she was clearly over thirty, but that was the last thing on my mind. I had seen many, many beautiful people over the centuries, and this Mediterranean woman was near the top of the list. Hell, there were immortal shapeshifters, who could choose exactly how they looked, who weren’t anywhere near her league. She wore kind of a low-rent gypsy fortune-teller getup, but even that didn’t detract from how stunning she was.

Her eyes, though. They were cold. The half-glance she gave me as she led her customer out was enough to tell me that. Regardless, I put on my best smiley face and waited.

She approached me. “Ms. December?” she asked.

“Ms. Giancarla,” I said, standing to my feet and offering a hand. “Pleasure to meet you. How are you?”

“As I said over the phone,” she said – no accent again, but I could catch the slight differences in tone this time, and identify them. “I have a stalker. So, not very well.”

I nodded, and retracted my hand. Maybe she hadn’t noticed it. “Well, I’m here to help. What information can you give me?”

Come on, say it’s a mummy. Please say it’s a mummy.

“He’s a white male, early middle-age, very nondescript,” she said. “And not someone I know or recognize. But he’s been following me home for two weeks now, and within the last few days, he has hovered threateningly outside my apartment door. The police won’t do anything, so I need your help to catch him.”

“To catch him and call the cops, or catch him and rough him up?” I asked. “Because, depending on how much of a creepystalker he is, I can do either.”

She looked down at me. Because I was short.

“And I have a good enough relationship with the local police that if I call it in, they will do something about it,” I added. “So, what do you need?”

“I need you to identify him without breaking any laws,” she said. “Walk home with me. If he follows tonight, do whatever you think is best.”

I nodded. “All right, then. Shall we go?”

“I need to close first,” Giancarla said, and moved on before I could respond. She was quick, efficient, and clearly disgruntled as she closed up shop. I watched, getting a bead on the type of person she was.

“So, Rosa – may I call you Rosa?”

“Call me whatever you want,” she said, and transformed. Not literally, but the ease at which she became an entirely new person was startling. She removed the head scarf and ridiculous earrings, straightened out her hair, took off the shawl and excessive jewelry, and the gypsy look was gone. Once again, I was kind of stunned by her beauty, though I also noticed the frown lines around her mouth, and the withering depths of that cold stare.

“All right. Rosa,” I went on. “You mentioned walking home. How far are you from here?”

“A few blocks,” she said. “It’s not even good exercise, you’ll be fine.”

“I was going to say, I have a car,” I took my keys out of my pocket.

“If we use your car, he might not follow me home,” she waved dismissively.

“Oh,” I said. “Good point. Would having me around mess things up, too?”

“Another woman?” she asked. “As short as you are? No.”

I sighed. Okay, okay, she had a point. Those stupid tall people, with their tallness. At least I was closer to earth!

“Let’s go,” Rosa said, holding the door for me while she locked up. We exited her shop into the night, and she strode quickly enough that I had to scuttle to keep up. I was already plotting my revenge.

I saw the car pull out in my peripheral vision – it had been parked across the street from her shop when I arrived, and was still there when we left, hours later. It ambled down the street, several cars back. It drove past when the flow of traffic was too fast, but then reappeared again, having circled around the block. I gently nudged Rosalinde’s arm. She nodded, still looking ahead. I glanced at the car’s license plate the next time it passed, and copied it down on my phone.

“I’ll call it in,” I said. “When we get inside. Even if he doesn’t hang around your door, we’ve got the license plate.”

She gave another brief, nonverbal nod. I put my hands in my pockets, and we went on.

“So,” I tried. “How long have you been in this business?”

She turned and crossed the street. I jogged to keep up.

“A while,” she said.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“It was in my family. How long have you been in your ‘business?”

“A while,” I answered. She wasn’t a bad conversationalist, I had heard her with a customer. But every word felt like a lead weight thudding on the ground, and it was beginning to bug me. But hey, in the grand scale of customers, Rosalinde Giancarla was nowhere near the bottom. “So, are we getting close?”

“Almost there,” she said, and took her keys from her purse as we walked. I noticed that car still circling the block – or at least thought I could, in the distance – and kept an extra watch out as she opened the front door to her building.

Rosalinde went inside, and I hesitated by the door. Invitations were a tough requirement. Sometimes you could go into the halls of an apartment building, sometimes not. I felt the threshold threaten me already, and stole another glance over my shoulder, looking for the stalker’s car as a way to wait for her invitation.

“What are you waiting for?” Rosa asked. “Come in.”

“Thanks,” I said, and stepped inside. The door shut behind me with a click, and a thought entered my mind as I followed Rosa to the actual front door of her apartment.

“I assume you saw him follow,” she said as she unlocked the door.

“Yeah, he wasn’t very subtle,” I said. “With any luck, we won’t have to wait long.”

Thresholds are interesting things. A lot of factors can make them vary in strength – the mindset of the residents, state of the family, history of the building, or even direct magic placed upon a home. For a vampire, it pretty much all added up to the same thing, but those subtle differences were important. I could feel the strength of Rosalinde’s threshold even while outside. Compared to the main building’s picket fence, it felt like a brick wall. There were two things that could strengthen a threshold that much. Strong family ties, and artificial magic. But I hadn’t sensed anything supernatural in her office, had I?

She opened the door. “Are you coming in?”

I stepped inside, and felt the threshold break as I came through. No, that was wrong. Thresholds didn’t work that way. It would have dropped the moment Rosalinde invited me. But something shattered when I crossed it, and whatever magic held the barrier together had scattered like smoke in the wind. What the hell had I just done?

Rosa’s apartment was quite nice – warm, plushly furnished, reminiscent of an old home. But that feeling of wrongness still underpinned everything, like I was trespassing. Odd, that – technically, as a vampire, I couldn’t trespass anymore. So what was the deal with her threshold?

“Close the door,” Rosa said. “Please.”

“Oh, right. The stalker,” I said, and closed the door behind me, not liking the finality of that click as it shut. “So, hey, um, nice place, Ms. Giancarla.”

“Thank you,” she said. And stood there. We stared at each other awkwardly for a few moments.

Really awkwardly.

“Tea?” she finally asked.

“Sure,” I said, putting on my best smile and walking around the living room a little bit. Okay, maybe I had been a little jumpy. The place looked fine – felt fine, too. I heard a meow and spotted a pair of cats, one black and one mottled gray, peering in from the kitchen, regarding me curiously.

“Saber and Midnight,” Rosalinde said as she stepped around them, pausing to pet both felines. They merrily followed her into the kitchen, and meowed until she stopped to feed them. All right, then. Pets were almost always a good sign, at least supernaturally-speaking. They usually got along with me, even though I was a vampire. Animals are a good judge of character. Usually. I mean, sure, evil villains had cats and dogs, too, but… well, there went my point. Pets were sometimes a good sign, and I was so nervous that I had begun to mentally ramble.

“So,” I said. “What time does that guy usually come by your door?”

“Soon,” she said.

“Okay, so you mean it usually doesn’t take that long,” I said. “Unless you’re predicting it or something. You are the psychic after all, right?”

The look she gave me stifled my lame attempt at humor. But she still poured our tea, and returned to hand me the cup. I took it, feeling her hand trembling so lightly that if not for the liquid, I never would have realized it. It caused me to notice the nervousness in her eyes, deep behind the cold, serious glare she had given so far.

All righty, then. We’ll just assume that’s because of the stalker, and ignore it just like the threshold.

“Thanks,” I said, and took a sip of the hot tea. Vampires were immune to poison, and I really doubted that was what she was doing. It was good tea, too.

“So,” I started to say something, but Rosa interrupted.

“Any minute now,” she said.

I took another sip of my tea, and began to look around her living room. As I had said, it was kind of nice. Cozy. There were a few pictures on the mantel, and I began to approach. Maybe she had family?

“I’m sorry about the awkwardness,” Rosa said, distracting me from the photos. “It’s a tense situation.”

“Indeed, it is,” I agreed, turning around. And then there was finally a knock on the door.

I looked to Rosa, and she nodded, stepping away and taking a defensive posture.

“Hey,” someone said from outside, and knocked again. “Hey. Are you in there? Hey.”

I looked at Rosa. She nodded, and I crept up to the door.

“Hey, I know you’re in there,” the man outside said, and tried the doorknob. “Come on. Say something. I know you’re in there.”

I put down my tea, crept up to the door, and leaned up to peer through the peephole. Well, she wasn’t wrong, Rosa’s stalker was indeed a nondescript Caucasian male. Well, it wasn’t impossible to take a picture through a peephole, and I had brought a decent camera in anticipation, so between that and the license plate, we had this man dead to rights.

“Come on, let me in,” he rattled the doorknob again, and knocked louder. “Just give me a chance, will you? Give me a chance. Come on. I know you’re in there. Just give me a chance.”

I slipped the camera from my pocket and looked at Rosa. She nodded, and I returned the gesture with a wink. I swapped the lens and pressed the camera against the peephole, carefully adjusting it until I got the least amount of blur and distortion, which was still a lot, and then took a picture. I pocketed the camera in my coat again and gave Rosa the OK sign. She nodded and sighed quietly, forcing herself to take a sip of her own tea.

So then I opened the door.

“Come on, just give me a–” the man blinked, confused enough to freeze in mid-knock. Well hey, what can I say? I don’t look anything like Rosa Giancarla.

“Hiya,” I said, grabbed his arm, and judo flipped him to the ground.

Rosa jumped to her feet, spilling half of her tea. She opened her mouth to yell something, but I twisted the downed man’s arm. He stopped struggling immediately, and winced at the pain.

“Okay,” I said. “He’s down. So, why did you hire him, Rosa?”

“What?” she asked.

“Yeah, you heard me,” I kept the would-be stalker’s arm hyper-extended, and looked down at him. “So, what did she hire you for?”

“Stop, that hurts!” he said.

“Yeah, I know, it’s why I did it,” I said, still holding his arm up. “You gonna answer my question?”

“Miss December,” Rosa scowled, taking a step toward me. I held up my free hand.

“I don’t know!” the man said. “She just told me to follow her. And you, she said to follow when you were here.”

“Yeah, but why?” I asked. “If you let me know everything, I promise I won’t dislocate your arm, okay?”

“I swear I don’t know!”

I looked up to her. “Rosa, care to chime in?” I asked. “You know, the threshold really tipped me off. And don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, that thing wasn’t natural. It had to be constructed. So you made me break your own threshold. You hired this guy to pretend to stalk you, and the whole time you’ve been so tense and nervous that you’ve acted like some kind of crazy robot. This whole thing has the earmarks of a trap, but it’s gotta be a real clumsy one, since you haven’t even tried to spring anything on me yet. So hey, why don’t you start giving me a few more facts, Rosa?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said.

“Try me,” I said back to her. “Because I can understand a hell of a lot.”

Rosa put down her tea. The man at my feet squirmed.

“Well?” I asked.

“It’s here,” she said.

“What?” I asked. “Who’s here?”

The atmosphere shifted. The cats ran out of the living room to hide. The air felt thicker, hazier. Distant, unreal, as if the entire apartment was just painted, and the canvas was about to tear.

“My stalker,” Rosa said.

I let go of the man’s arm. “Get out of here,” I said. “Run as fast as you can.”

The hired stalker scrambled up, clutching his hurting arm. He staggered, bumping into the doorjamb on his way out, and then ran down the hall. The pressure in the air increased.

“What the hell did you let in?” I asked Rosa, already reaching in my coat for my gun.

“The threshold wards had to be broken,” she said, looking me in the eyes. Her voice sounded muffled, warped by the thickening air in the room. “But it had to look like an accident, not intentional. A vampire would be unholy enough to do it.”

I had figured she’d known, but hearing it was different. I drew my gun directly.

“You have three seconds to tell me everything clearly,” I said, backing toward the door.

“It wasn’t a trap for you,” she said.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked in the ever-distorting room. “Then what was it?”

“I found you,” Another voice said.

“What was that?” I asked, and then something hit me. I stumbled in the blurry, hazy room, forcing myself to regain my balance. I felt its presence. The scent was wrong, foreign, as natural as melted plastic. It didn’t feel like any demon or undead monster I had met. It seemed like something that didn’t belong in this or any other world. I couldn’t even imagine that stench fitting in Hell.

I saw it in front of me, the only thing that was fully clear in the distorted apartment, contrasting so harshly that it looked like a poor editing job – like the only thing that was real.

It stood tall and impossibly thin, its gaunt frame swathed in loose, tattered bandages. At the end of its overlong arms were stretched hands, the impossibly elongated fingers stretching out, each with n extra joint. Its skin, what I could see of it, was mottled red, the color of a blood bruise. Veins stood out in pitch black, spiderwebbing across what little flesh was exposed underneath the bandages. Its face was entirely covered, except for its mouth turned up in an impossibly wide, twisted, toothy grin.

“I found you,” it said.

Il Sorriso del Diavolo,” Rosa said.

“In English!” I yelled, aiming my gun at the thing.

“The Devil’s Smile!” Rosa yelled, and waved an arm in its direction. I realized what she was doing just in time to duck out of the way. “Bruciare!

I didn’t know very much Italian, but I knew that word. It meant Burn.

A cloud of flame erupted from Rosalinde’s hand, and the bandaged thing grimaced, sidestepping the entire spell in one long step. The spell dissipated before it could set her home on fire, and the creature stepped into the walls and vanished – no, that wasn’t right, it stepped behind the wall, like it slipped behind stage scenery.

“What the hell is that thing?” I asked. Well, it wasn’t a mummy.

“Shush!” Rosa snapped at me, stalking around the room. Holy hell, I could feel the arcane power radiating off her. This wasn’t just a simple Wiccan or magic dabbler, she was a full sorceress. She had enough power to hide it completely from me. What had I just gotten myself into?

“I found you,” it said from behind me. I whirled around just as the thing’s spidery fingers wrapped around my face, and I tried to shoot it. It twisted its body away from my gun and hurled me across the room, sending me crashing headfirst into the wall. I vaguely saw Rosalinde try to burn it again, only for the creature to contort out of the way again.

“I found you,” its fingers brushed by her face as it passed, and vanished again.

“It found you,” I said, staggering to my feet. The air felt heavy, slow, like molasses. My own voice felt strange and tinny, muffled in a way. The only thing that was clear was this horrible thing. The Devil’s Smile. “That’s what it was doing, wasn’t it? Searching for you?”

“Shut up!” she said. “I have to concentrate.”

“No,” I took a step toward her. “People have been disappearing, Rosa. Is it because this thing was trying to find you?”

“I said,” she glared at me. “Stop talking!”

I saw the bandaged creature appear behind her just as she turned. I opened my mouth to scream a warning, but then its hands were on her, and it took her away. It stepped with her to the side, and they were both gone.

“I found you.”

2.

 

“We have always been witches, my daughter,” my mother had said to me. “My dear little Rosa.”

“But why, Mama?” I had asked. We sat alone in our tiny apartment, just another family of immigrants in Queens, a scene out of place by about seventy years. My family had moved when I was only two. I didn’t remember anything of Genoa, it was as foreign to me back then as any other place overseas. But heritage calls, and it must be answered.

“Because of what we protect, my dear one,” My mother said, and brought out one of her books. Strange, dusty old things, she had never let me look at them before. Enticed by the promise of forbidden fruit, I climbed onto her lap to see.

“All of the world is like a curtain,” she said. The book was written in a language I did not know. On one page was a picture of that curtain, a fabric made of stars. As my mother spoke, she waved her hand over the page, and the picture changed, the star-curtain rippling, revealing layers of fabric. I wasn’t surprised, I had seen her perform little tricks before. I had loved them. I had loved her.

“This world, Heaven, Hell, all of it, are different layers, parts of the whole. But what lies beyond that curtain, nobody knows. Nobody can know. It is not our world. It is not for this world.”

The curtain on the page rustled, pulling back a corner. Behind the fabric as a darkness blacker than any ink, disturbed only by the suggestions of shapes, of squirming motion without form.

“And what lives out there, nobody can understand. Are they leftovers from God’s creation? Perhaps they are older than this world? Or maybe they are the nightmares we dream given form. Nobody knows. They are not gods, they are not devils or angels, but they must never come through the curtain. They are poison, my dear Rosa. In our family, we have always been witches, we have seen the curtain, and we have held it back.”

“Is that what witches do, Mama?” I asked.

“No, my dear,” she closed the book, and smiled to me. My mother had the warmest smile. “Only a few do this. Only a few.”

“Are we the only ones?”

“No, we are not,” she said. “And you do not have to become a witch. There is so much responsibility, dear Rosa. So much you would have to do. You do not have to take this life if you find you don’t want it. I will always support and love you.”

I had hugged my mother, burying my face in her soft shoulder.

“But always be careful what you read,” she said, gently stroking my hair. “Be careful what you see. Some of these creatures, these nightmares, if they ever know that you know them, if they ever see you seeing them, they will never let you go. If you see them, they will always know you.”

I looked up to her. “Were there any that you’ve seen, Mama?” I asked.

She was silent, and I was too young to realize what that meant.

I was excited to become a witch. I devoured the books my mother had allowed me to read. I studied them harder than my schoolwork, relishing every tiny piece of watered-down knowledge I could learn. She still kept the oldest books from me, the ones written in that strange language, but I knew that the day would come when I, too, could read them and be just like her. I was a child.

But I learned, I studied, and I trained. I practiced magic in my youth, dabbling here and there, and was amazed at every baby step I made. I learned to respect the power that flows through the universe, to handle it as my own. I spoke to it in the language of my soul, my heritage, my family, and it listened to me. All was good.

I was still young when I finally looked into the book. My mother was out of the house, and my curiosity had finally taken hold of my better judgment. I sat with it, turning from page to page, unable to understand the words but feeling the latent energy crackle with each page. I did not know how to make the illustrations move as my mother had, but I studied them, still, especially that one of the multi-layered curtain. I wondered again what was beyond that veil, what I could see if only I knew how.

Did the curtain move? Or was that just my eyes playing a trick because I had hoped so much? I turned the page. Many of the unspeakable nightmares my mother had alluded to were illustrated here, drawn in crude, rough sketches, mapped out as a landscape of chaos. Some of them looked like things that might be seen here in the world, others like nothing I could have dreamed. But I could not read the entries, and soon even pictures of horror soon lost their luster.

Until I saw it. The smile. A sparse sketch, only showing those teeth and lips turned up in a knowing, sinister grin. It fascinated me, that smile. The minimalism of it, and yet the primal fear looking at it brought me. What was this? I marveled at the foreign words surrounding the picture, wondering what they could have meant, what truths they told about that terrible, terrible smile. And then all at once the strange text changed before my eyes, turning into words I could read.

Il Sorriso del Diavolo.

The Devil’s Smile.

The paragraphs of text melted, becoming one sentence. My mother’s words.

If you see them, they will always know you.

“I found you,” a voice said from behind my shoulder.

I threw the book down and turned around, ready to scream. In the corner of my eye, for the barest fraction of a second, I thought I saw something impossibly narrow, gaunt, standing in the room with me. But there was nothing. I looked back at the book, warily, and picked it up. The text on the page was unreadable again, the drawing just a smile. And yet…

“I found you.”

I shut the book and returned it to its shelf.

I stopped studying my mother’s magic. If she had been disappointed, she never let on. My mother continued to support and love me, and soon I was able to dismiss what I thought I had seen an heard as my overactive imagination getting away from me. In time, I was even able to forget about magic and witchcraft, to almost convince myself that it was only my mother’s old superstition from the homeland.

I went to college, graduated, found a soul mate, and married. We had an American wedding, and though the bride’s side of the family only contained my mother, it was beautiful. And for a little while, I was no longer Rosalinde Giancarla, I was Rosie Copeland.

And yet, when I first held my newborn daughter in my arms, the delight of my life, a thought came to my mind.

We have always been witches, my daughter.

I forced the thought away, because of course, we were not witches.

Late one night, the baby woke me with her crying.

“It’s your turn, Rosa,” my husband muttered from somewhere underneath two pillows.

“Of course it is,” I yawned, and sat up, blearily finding my footing on the floor. “She probably needs feeding.”

He was already snoring.

I shuffled out of the bedroom, pausing to yawn again. The baby didn’t let us sleep much, but that was such a tiny price to pay for the joys of having a child that it barely bothered me. She had my eyes. And, telling from her volume, my lungs as well.

All at once, the crying stopped. She had calmed herself before, but my instincts triggered, and my heart skipped a beat. Fully awake now, I strode into the baby’s room. The air was thick, dreamlike. Unreal.

A gaunt figure wrapped in bandages stood over the crib, stretching its too-long fingers toward my daughter. When I entered, it turned to look at me, and smiled.

“I found you.”

The words came back to me in a panic, and I delved into forgotten magic, calling fire at the nightmare that was threatening my baby. I screamed for it to burn, bruciare, but it only twisted out of the way of the flames, that smile still plastered on its blind face.

Inches from my daughter.

My husband ran into the room when I screamed, and he saw it as well. Saw the monster, saw the flames in my hands, saw the terror and chaos in the room before the Devil’s Smile turned to look at me again, and said those three words.

“I found you.”

And then it vanished, stepping out of sight as if it somehow left the world behind like a stage. It walked behind the curtain.

The baby started crying again, and my world fell apart.

I didn’t argue with my husband when he left, or when he took our daughter with him. I had told him everything, and he had believed it. He left for their safety – for hers. I never heard from them again, never even kept track of where they had gone. For the better, because it kept them safe. They were no longer targets like I was.

A week later, I received a call telling me that my mother had disappeared. They searched for her, but I knew what had been happened. She had been taken behind the curtain. She had seen something a long time ago, something that knew her and marked her, and it had finally come back for her. Perhaps it was the same thing, that grinning, bandaged devil.

I inherited her possessions, especially the books. And I devoured them.

I learned, I studied, and I trained. I mastered magic in my adulthood, obsessively training and grasping, and was unsatisfied with every baby step I made. I learned how to harness the power that flows through the universe, to seize it as my own. I commanded it in the language of my soul, my fury, my fear, and it obeyed. All was as it needed to be.

I moved to San Francisco, epicenter of the occult, and set up shop as a fortune-teller. I didn’t use real magic in my business – never needed to – but I made my living, and protected my home with all the wards and spiritual walls I could create. It was safe. A sanctuary. A place for me to study and prepare even more.

And then the day came that I heard about it. Practitioners were disappearing. A witness reported a thin, grinning man wrapped in bandages.

It knew me. It wanted me. It had found me.

And so I sprang my trap. I brought in a foul, unholy vampire – albeit an innocuous one – to break down my wards, and I let it come to me. But that stupid leech-woman had gotten in the way, and now things were going very badly.

The Devil’s Smile had taken me to its home. It was darkness, a void without stars, yet I felt rocky ground beneath my feet. Whatever was there, my eyes couldn’t process a world behind the veil, and so they never registered it. But I could see the nightmare itself, the monster that had haunted myself and my family, standing out as starkly as if it gave off light.

“I found you,” it said again, and struck.

I felt piercing pain in my ribs and doubled over, clutching my hand to my bleeding side. I felt the magic all around me, gathering with my thoughts. I wasn’t cut off. I could still fight back. I had to. It had taken my mother. It had threatened my daughter.

Sciogliersi!” I shouted. Melt. The magic resolved itself as a stream of acid, bubbling green, and the Devil’s Smile bent around it, avoiding the spell to come at me again. I felt its fingers lash against my face now, rocking me back on my feet. I canceled the spell before the acid could touch me, and tried to gain my bearings again.

Hit and run. That was its strategy. It had dodged everything I threw at it. It hadn’t actually taken a blow yet.

Burrasca!” a gale of wind blew, surging around me toward the nightmare. Its bandages flapped in the breeze, but once more it sidestepped around the wind I had conjured, and its arms soon wrapped around my body in a horrible, perverse embrace.

Accendiere!” Light glowed in a beacon, and the creature tore itself from me. Could it see without eyes? For the briefest moment, in the afterimage of that flash, I saw a landscape outlined around me. A barren, chaotic land, the torn leftovers from the universe that is. What could live here?

“I found you,” the Devil’s Smile said from behind me.

Sanguinare!” I screamed as I whirled around, casting the most vicious, hateful spell I knew. But without a target, it began to backfire, and twisting cuts began to tear their way up my hands, following the veins. I shrieked in pain and forced all my will into canceling the Bleed spell, stopping it before it could reach my wrists. Pain wracked my body as the magic was forced into a standstill, backed up by my will alone.

I stood there, gasping, bleeding from so many wounds, desperately trying to hold on. And it was near. Watching. What could I do? How could I harm it? How could I finally end this? How could I fight this thing if it simply moved out of the way of all my magic?

Don’t let it move.

Let it make the mistake.

Its long-fingered hands closed around my shoulders, and the Devil’s Smile whispered a new sentence into my ear.

“I have you,” it said.

Torna,” I whispered. “Torna a casa.

The Devil’s Smile had torn me away from my home, it was only fair that I take it back by force. We whipped through the curtain, back into my living room. My feet touched down on familiar ground again, and the Devil’s Smile shoved me hard, forcing me onto the ground. I tried to keep my grip on its shoulders, but my bloody hands slipped, and the bandages tore in my grasp. I landed roughly, jarred back against my own wall. The nightmare looked down at me, its grin even wider.

“I found you,” it said, and began to reach.

I called the magic to myself, preparing to strike as soon as it had its hands on me, as soon as it could no longer twist out of range. It had fallen for my trap. After all these years, I would finally have my satisfaction.

3.

They were gone. The monster had taken Rosa while I argued with her. Hell, what did I just do? I was upset, sure, she had been using me as bait for that mummy-thing, but I didn’t want to see her hurt. And now she was gone.

The apartment had returned to normal as soon as they had disappeared. There was a whiff of smoke in the air from Rosalinde’s fire spell, and the faint scent of tea still lingered from the pot. But that was it.

Well, now what?

I supposed that I owed Tony a call – I knew what was kidnapping people, or at least I had a visual on it. I really had no idea what that thing was. It wasn’t undead. It wasn’t a demon – it didn’t smell or look or feel like anything I had even heard of. It was just wrong. And what was that it had said? It found her?

Yeesh, I needed more info.

I didn’t leave the living room. She was gone, but it felt wrong somehow to go rifling through her stuff. I took another look at the pictures on that mantelpiece, and saw a photo of an older Italian woman, and another of a younger Rosalinde with a man and a baby. That last one made me think of my old children, hundreds of years gone. I frowned, and stepped away from the photos.

Rosalinde’s cats crept back into the living room, and the gray one ventured a careful meow.

“I’m sorry, guys,” I said, kneeling down to them. “She’s gone.”

The cats crept warily to me, but soon succumbed when I started petting them behind the ears. She couldn’t have been that bad, could she?

When the black cat rolled over for a tummy rub, I wanted to cry. This damned mummy monster was going to pay the next time I saw it. And if it tried to carry me off, then I’d kick its ass in whatever weird dark world served as its home. Whenever I saw it. However long it took.

The air began to grow thick again, and the room went fuzzy. The cats fled from my hands, out of the living room. Well, I had my chance again. I stood, drew my gun, and paused to gulp down my remaining tea. That bastard was about to feel sorry it ever poked its bandaged nose into my city.

They reemerged near the photo shelf, Rosalinde bleeding, battered, and grappling with the grinning mummy monster for all she was worth. It threw her to the floor, and grinned down at her. Rosa bled from her chest and side, and her hands were slick with blood. She looked too weak to stand, and the scent of her blood almost overpowered the unnatural chemical stench of the monster itself.

“I found you,” it said, and began to reach.

I drew my gun and shot it in the back of the head. The creature’s skull burst in a shower of bone, foul blood, and tattered bandages, and it collapsed like a rag doll.

“Yeah, well, I got you,” I said. The room immediately returned to normal.

“What did you do?” Rosalinde screamed at me.

“Uh, I killed the monster,” I said.

“Do you realize what you’ve just done?” she stood to her feet, bracing herself against the wall, using her elbow so she wouldn’t leave a bloody hand print.

“Yeah,” I said. “That thing abducted you, and then brought you back here all mangled to shit and back, so I shot it before it could finish the job. You know, the monster you were trying to kill.”

She looked down at the creature’s corpse. “Bruciare!” and blasted it with a ball of flame. She yelled the command again, and again, charring it into ashes and scraps of bandage. Nothing else in the room was burned – not even her carpet. I stood back and let her mutilate the thing’s remains, glad that she wasn’t turning her firepower on me.

And then she started crying. I approached, only for Rosalinde to push me away, leaving a blood stain on my coat.

“Don’t touch me!” she said. “This is your fault.”

“What’s my fault?” I asked. “Please, Rosie, I’m kinda lacking info here. That was a bad guy, right? Didn’t you kind of want it dead?”

“I wanted it to lose,” she said. “To be beaten. I wanted it to know it had lost, and to feel all the terror it had given my– given people for all those years. I wanted to look it in the face when it knew it had lost, and see its pain as I burned it from the inside out. Do you understand? It didn’t lose. It never knew it lost. It was winning, and then it just stopped. You didn’t give it a chance to lose.”

“Uh,” I said, and kind of understood. “Well, I think it lost when it got its its brains splattered all over the wall. Look, you guys came back, and that thing looked like it was killing you. You’re covered in blood, Rosa. I think you might need an ambulance.”

“I can fix it!” she snapped at me. “You ruined everything. Don’t you understand what you did?”

“Well, uh, I shot the mad monster that was attacking my new friend,” I said.

“We are not friends,” she growled. “Get out.”

“Miss Giancarla?” I said.

“Get out!” she yelled.

It wasn’t a formal revocation of my invitation, but I didn’t want to press it. I exited out the front door, stealing one last glance as I left. Rosa had turned back toward the pictures on the shelf, and I swore I could hear her crying softly, just barely within audible range.

Maybe it had killed her family, or something. I knew that pain, but I honestly couldn’t keep assuming anything. I decided to let it go, and call Tony on the way home about the “mummy” case. It had been solved, after all.

I left her to her grief. Well, that could have gone a lot better. But sometimes, you just don’t get all the answers.