Firespitter

 

I don’t base characters off of people I know. That said, I know a guy who does the hot dog thing every Halloween, for the same purpose. His family’s house is wildly popular every year. The way that I handle different religions in these stories is simple: They all get respect. Unless you’re out-and-out sacrificing babies to worship Satan, these stories will be kind to you. This disappoints some friends of mine, who want me to “get” people they don’t like, but it is not the point of these stories. Anyway, here’s the feel-good story of the year, costarring a horrific demon who spits venomous fire.

This story takes place whenever.  Really, it can fit into pretty much any Halloween.

 

It wasn’t that nothing supernatural ever happened on Halloween, just that people assumed big stuff was going down every year, and I had to weed through the false alarms if I wanted decent work. People came to me about the paranormal, even though I only ever advertised myself as an ordinary private detective. It was word-of-mouth that did it. You know how it goes – spend a lifetime rescuing kidnapped children, and nobody cares. Fight off just one army of apocalypse demons, and that’s all people ever think about.

Well okay, maybe it was more complicated than that. I also didn’t advertise the fact that I was a vampire, but many of my customers already knew that, too. The only thing that surprised them was how Jewish I was. Sometimes vampires are religious. It’s not easy to pull off, but it’s possible. I usually had something in my office showing this off. Nothing like a holy symbol, because just being around hurt me, but something making it obvious what I was. I had just swapped out the Hebrew nameplate for a signed photo of David Ben-Gurion on my desk. I think it distracted tonight’s client, because she kept looking at it and forgetting what she was talking about.

“So what you’re telling me,” I said to her. “Is that you’re afraid something is going to happen on Halloween, but you can’t tell me what, or by whom, or really where.”

“I told you, it’ll be in my neighborhood,” she said. “And it’s happening after dark.”

“But you don’t know what it is,” I said.

At a glance, she looked normal. A little past middle-age, but heavily preserved in the way that everybody younger than a baby boomer was. Nowadays people froze between the ages of forty and seventy. It made life easier for immortals, t least for some of us. I used to bother about moving before people could get suspicious, but I stopped caring about that decades ago. If people asked, I’d tell them. It’s not like most people believed or cared.

“I dreamed it,” she said. “I have prophetic dreams. Every time I’ve had a dream and felt it was real, it happened.”

“Oh,” I said. I almost began to mentally check out.

“You don’t believe me, but I mean it,” she said. “I dreamed about lottery numbers one time, and if I had played them, I would have won.”

“I see,” I said. Sure.

“And I’ve predicted deaths. My mother said I have a gift.”

“Look,” I said, putting on the friendliest smile I could muster. “I’m as willing to believe as the next person, but I can’t do anything without information to go on.”

“But I didn’t tell you about my dream,” she said.

“All right,” I sighed. “Tell me about your dream.”

The woman closed her eyes for a moment, as if concentrating. She opened them, looked at the photograph again and then began.

“I have three neighbors,” she said. “Three religious neighbors, and every Halloween they go to war.”

“War?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Well, not war, not really, but all three houses go all out for Halloween, and they try to make it into some kind of evangelistic outreach, but they all disagree.”

“So, they fight over it, and you’re worried that it’ll get violent?” I asked. “Is that what you were dreaming about?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe. There’s always this tension, but nobody’s been outwardly hostile. Well, not when it was two of them.”

“Is this what you dreamed?” I asked.

“I’m getting there!” she said. “Okay, so it’s really just two neighbors who do this every Halloween. But last year just before Christmas, the Jensens moved away. I guess it was into a nursing home or something. I think. Maybe. But they moved, and someone else moved in.”

Was this going somewhere? I had no idea.

“So, someone else moved in. An older lady. She’s really nice. But the thing is, she’s also really Catholic,and the other two people have been talking to her a lot, like they’re trying to convert her. And now Halloween is coming up.”

“Can you please tell me why you think this is dangerous?” I asked.

“Give me a moment!” she said. “So, they all live at the end of the cul-de-sac. The new woman is named Karen. She’s a sweetheart, and she’s Catholic.”

“You said that already.”

“Well, you have the Kilraines,” she continued. “They’re Protestant. Aaron Kilraine opens up his house every Halloween, and starts grilling hot dogs for the neighborhood. They’ve been doing it for years, and it always brings people in.”

“And this is dangerous, somehow?” I asked.

She frowned at me. “Please take me seriously,” she said.

“All right,” I said. “Go on.”

“He does it to preach at people, but he gives away hot dogs, and a lot of free candy, so nobody really seems to mind. Well, nobody except for Erin Walsh. She’s Wiccan. And she told me that he thinks Christians like the Kilraines are disrespecting Samhain by making it about themselves. At least that’s what she told me. So she opens up her house and tries to make it this big educational thing, but it really clashes with their family.”

“Where did you say all of this is taking place, again?” I asked, rubbing my forehead.

“Pleasant Hill,” she said.

So essentially, she came halfway across the Bay, commuting at least a couple of hours, to give me some neighborhood gossip. That was the only reason I was still listening to her. It had to be important if she put in that much effort, right?

“So, they’re fighting over the new neighbor?” I asked

“Well, Karen Hannock is really sweet,” she said. “And she’s said that she’s planning to make a big production out of Halloween this year, too.”

“I’m sorry, but can you please tell me why you came all the way out here to hire a private detective?”

“I dreamed everybody died,” she said. “It was so realistic, especially at first. Just all their houses the way they are on Halloween, but then hey both started fighting over Karen, and as they argued I saw a fire began to build. And it grew and grew until it burned up all three of them.”

“You may have had that dream because you’ve been stressing about the situation,” I said. “Think about it. You obviously care about your neighbors, and you don’t want to see them fight. So you’ve been dreading what you think could be a fight, and you had a dream about it.”

“No, this is different,” she said. “Much different. I know when one of my dreams is real, and I’ve never been wrong, do you understand?”

“I understand that you feel this way,” I said.

“You’re supposed to believe me,” she said. “You have a reputation. I really think that something bad is going to happen, and it’ll be one of those two. Could you at least come by the neighborhood and check things out?”

Maybe it was something in her tone, or maybe it was her eyes. Everything about her said that she really, really believed what she was saying. Was I wrong for doubting her? Or for completely forgetting her name five seconds after she introduced herself?

“All right,” I said. “I’m free all night, I can swing by and ask a few questions.”

Her expression brightened. “Can you be there at sundown?”

“How about right after?” I asked.

“I thought you were free.”

“I’m thinking about rush hour traffic,” I said. Well, it was a better excuse than, ‘the sun would set me on fire.’ My car had specially tinted windows, and I could make the drive anytime, but actually getting out before sunset would have hilarious results.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she said. “The trick-or-treaters are usually dying down after dark. They’re only really allowed to do it in the daytime anymore, you know. And they can’t even go out without their parents. Remember what it was like when we were kids?”

When I was a kid, you had twelve children because five of them might survive and help on the farm. I didn’t tell her that, I just nodded and said, “Oh, yeah, people are crazy nowadays. What did you say the address was?”

The lady who may or may not have had prophetic dreams wrote down the street I needed to visit, and thanked me.

“About the bill,” she said. “Does it depend on results?”

“Depends on the work,” I said. Ideally, I could charge her just for showing up, but I knew her type. If nothing went wrong, she’d fight it, and I really didn’t feel like bothering.

“Okay, I guess we’ll talk after you save everybody,” she said, and stood up. She was about to leave when she paused, looking back at me.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Who’s that photo of?” she asked, pointing to my desk.

“That’s David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, and looked at me a little differently. It felt like the temperature in the room dropped a little bit. “That’s… kind of interesting, I guess.”

I fought back with a smile. “See you on Halloween?”

“Oh, I don’t plan to be home,” she said. “If something goes wrong, I want to be far away. But please call me when it’s over.”

Eight hundred years, and some things never change. Well, they did a little bit – a cold shoulder was a far cry from lethal pogroms, but it still rankled me. The world claimed that antisemitism died at the end of World War II, but that was a lie. Even when there wasn’t outright, visible violence. low-key hating the Jews was “funny,” and thus acceptable. I had no doubts the lady would still hire me, and pay me whatever I charged, but I also had no doubt she would complain to her friends. You know, “those people,” and all. “I know stereotypes are bad, but they really are greedy.” Maybe with a dash of, “I don’t have a problem with them, it’s just their culture.”

I still made plans to drive down to Pleasant Hill on Halloween, and question a bunch of religious people about nothing at all.

And yet, on Halloween, I got in my specially protected car, and drove own one of the worst freeway corridors in the state of California, all because someone had a bad dream. Why did I do it? Because she really believed that something was going to happen. The human mind is capable of analyzing far more information than we give it credit for, and a “hunch” was usually the brain’s way of trying to alert us to something. Sometimes dreams did the same thing.

The Bay Area was a wondrous place. Turn a corner, and you go straight from metropolis to suburb to farmland without any warning. Seriously, there were cows out there. Pleasant Hill was somewhere between suburb and big city. Less expensive than San Francisco, but too far away to commute comfortably. Also, not quite as full of monsters.

I parked at the end of the block and waited for the sun to go down, trying my best to not look like a suspicious weirdo. From behind tinted glass, I watched as children pretended to be ghosts, ghouls, superheroes – all the same to them, nothing more than fun and make-believe. I spotted more than a few parents shepherding them around with more and more urgency as the evening went on, but such was life these days.

The houses were easy enough to spot, even from a distance. One of them was ringed with festive orange lights, had its garage door open with a full barbecue setup, and what looked like half the neighborhood over. The other house had turnips. Jack-O’Lantern turnips, and a sign that I was too far away to read, but guessed said something like, “Ask me about the real Halloween!”

And in between them, was a cute, quaint little place with no decorations whatsoever. A demilitarized zone, so to speak. Well, my client had that much right, at least. People were not exactly beating down a path to Ms. Erin Walsh’s door, so when the sun had set enough for me to survive, I chose to visit her, first.

I made the decision to go unarmed. Sure, you can get away with a lot on Halloween, but a gun is a gun, and the last thing I needed was to start a panic. I just had to trust that I wouldn’t need it on this outing.

Turnip Jack-O’ Lanterns are creepy. They basically resemble mummified emojis. And the ones flanking Walsh’s front porch were creepier than any other decoration in the street. As I waked past, it felt like they were staring at me. I dutifully ignored their rictus faces, and knocked on the front door.

Also, I was only sort of right about the sign. It said, “The REAL Halloween isn’t commercial! Ask me about Samhain!”

Yea, I’m sure she had people beating down her door to ask.

The woman who answered the door – you know, there was a certain stereotype in the 1970s of what a witch would look like, and that was pretty much her. Long, teased red hair, high cheekbones, a flowing gown, too much rouge. Indeterminate age.

“Hi,” I said, and put on my best smile. “My name’s Lucy. I was wondering if I could ask you about Samhain? I mean, it’s kind of on the sign.”

The fact that I pronounced Samhain correctly (kind of like “Sawinn”) seemed to take her by surprise, Erin Walsh gave me a serious look for a moment before she nodded once, briefly, and extended her arms in a grand gesture.

“I sense a soul in search of answers,” she said. “Come, stay a while and listen.”

I cracked up. Against my better judgment, I couldn’t resist the giggles. And when Walsh began to glare at me, it only made things worse.

“What are you laughing at?” she asked.

“Deckard Cain,” I chuckled.

“What?” she asked again.

Diablo. An old video game. You just quoted two characters. It’s what they said when you went to talk to them.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” she said.

“Sure you don’t,” I said. “I’m totally convinced.”

“I would never waste my time playing games.”

“I’m totally sure you wouldn’t.”

I met her gaze, and started giggling again.

“If you’re going to mock me, I am closing this door,” she said.

“No, no, sorry,” I was still chuckling, but at least I could form a coherent sentence. “It’s just what you said. Sorry. I really want to talk to you, I mean it. I’ll be good.”

That earned another glare from her, but she finally stepped back from the door way. “All right. Come in.”

There. Invitation gained. Now I could go inside.

“So,” I said as I stepped past the threshold. “Cain was like, this old an who knew lot of lore, and he’d always ask you to stay a while and listen, but you were just using him for items and stuff so nobody ever stayed a while and listened. And the other one was like this really stereotypical witch, and shed give the soul in search of answers spiel, but you really only went there to buy potions.”

“I told you, I do not play games,” she said. “My name is Erin Walsh, by the way.”

“Uh-huh. I’m really sure that you’ve never played it at all,” I said. “Look, we all get bored sometimes.”

Her home was somewhat cluttered, but my eye picked up the telltale signs of occult paraphernalia. That said, I didn’t pick up any actual supernatural vibes. What she had here was benign. She, like most Wiccans, was a believer, but not really a practitioner. The distinction was quite important.

“I thought you wanted to ask me about the holiday,” she said.

“Oh yeah, right,” I nodded. “Sorry. I got sidetracked. So, uh, why the sign? I mean, I get that Halloween isn’t celebrated like it was under the druids anymore, but does anyone really care?”

“For years I didn’t mind,” she said. “But then that idiot next door started turning Halloween into a barbecue. And he uses it for his religion!”

“Isn’t Halloween kinda sorta Christian?” I asked. “Relatively speaking?”

Erin shrugged. “Samhain is anything but Christian,” she said. “Of course, the Christians appropriated it with All Saint’s Day, and thus All Hallow’s Eve, but it’s a pale imitation of the original. Samhain is a sacred festival of the end of the harvest and of summer, and the beginning of the colder half of the year. It celebrates our ancestors by honoring those who have passed on, and it is somber, benevolent, and spiritual. Halloween, on the other hand, is a flippant secular holiday, which twists the important parts of the original festival – the harvest, honoring the dead – and replaces them with empty pageantry.”

“So, it’s kind of like how a religious person views Santa Claus,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“A lot of hardcore Christians really hate Santa,” I said. “I don’t know, I don’t celebrate the holiday.”

She chuckled. “Well, of course. It would be strange if you did. But do you celebrate Hanukkah?”

I blinked. “How did you know?” I asked.

Erin laughed. It was a pleasant sound. “I guessed,” she said. “I guess I got lucky.”

I grinned and shrugged. “I guess so,” I said.

“I appreciate and respect all religions and cultures,” she said. “And I am honored that someone of your background came to visit me.”

“Well, thanks,” I said, ignoring how utterly awkward and somewhat condescending her statement was.

“Anyway,” she said. “As I was saying, I can’t stand that man next door. He’s ruining what little sobriety and dignity remains in the season.”

“With hot dogs?” I asked.

“It’s more than that,” she said. “He’s using it to evangelize. He calls it ‘outreach.’ He’s taken something that is sacred to me, and has twisted it for his own gain.”

“I can see why you’re upset,” I said. “Is he particularly aggressive about it? Has he tried to evangelize you before?”

“Yes, he asked on two separate occasions,” she said. “Both times I made it exceptionally clear that I am not interested.”

“How did he react?” I asked.

“He waited six months before trying again,” she said. “People like him never listen.”

I shrugged. “People are like that,” I said. “Sorry to hear it’s bothering you. So, what are you going to do now?”

“Do?” she asked. “What do you mean, ‘do?’ The same thing as always, I suppose. And why are we talking about my neighbors, and not the traditions of the season?”

“Well, you know,” I shrugged. “I’ve honestly never seen a neighborhood celebrate Halloween like this, and it seems like kind of a fierce rivalry.”

She gave me a long, appraising look. “This is because of Jocelyn, isn’t it?”

“What?” I asked. Genuinely, because I still couldn’t remember the client’s name.

“I can’t believe it!” Erin stood, throwing her hands up in the air. “That woman is impossible! She’s been egging us on for years. What did she tell you? What did she ask you to do?”

I stood, as well. “She said that she had a dream that you two were going to kill each other, and I thought, hey, I had nothing else I was going to do tonight.”

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “She spies constantly on everyone on this block, and she bitches about us all the time. With her door open.”

“Well, sorry to hear that,” I said.

“And she hired you. You’re – what are you?”

“Private detective,” I said. “Though to be fair, I’ve kind of enjoyed listening to you talk about what you believe.” Even if most of it had been complaining about her neighbors.

“Just get out, I feel like you made me waste my time on you. I was hoping for at least one person who really believed.”

“Hey,” I said, though I did take a step toward the door. “If I were just in town at random, I would have knocked anyway. And I thought it was really great how you figured out I’m Jewish. Don’t feel bad.”

She glared at me. I stuck out a hand.

“Truce?”

After a moment, Erin Walsh took my hand and gave it a firm shake. “I believe in the unity, truth, and essential spirituality of all things,” she says. “The divine is when we recognize and tap into it within us. The proper celebration of Samhain is another way that we can feel unity together.”

“Thank you,” I said, returning that hand shake.”

“I suppose you want to go talk to Kilraine next.”

“Oh, totally,” I said. “As soon as the crowds go down a bit.”

“People start dispersing after dark,” she said. “You should be fine in a few minutes. And I don’t hate him.”

“You don’t?” I asked. “Even after that rant?”

“No,” Erin sighed, and her posture deflated a little. “I was just frustrated. His behavior gets on my nerves this time of year, but he’s a fine neighbor otherwise.”

“It’s okay, I understand,” I said. “Just remember to take a breath and count to ten if things get too bad.”

“Wow,” she said. “I didn’t ask for sarcasm.”

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s a reflex. Anyway, I’m going to go over there and be on my way. Are you going to be all right?”

“I am fine,” Erin said. “Happy Halloween, Ms. December.”

“Happy Samhain, Ms. Walsh.”

I left to go check out the hot dog baron of Hillcrest Ct.

Maybe Erin was clairvoyant after all. She knew about me, and she knew when the hot dog party would start winding down. By the time I crossed the street to the Kilraine house, Aaron was beginning to close up shop.

Oh, hey. Erin. Aaron. I wonder if they ever thought about that.

Aaron Kilraine was a big man. Tall. Broad-shouldered, built like a football player who had just begun to go to seed. I couldn’t venture a guess at his age, but he had to still be in his forties. He had opened up his garage and driveway to the neighborhood, and although the people were gone, the grill was still running, and the scent of barbecued meat was strong in the air. Kilraine was busy draining the water from a cooler filled with cans of soda. A well-stocked condiment table stood just to the side.

“I don’t suppose those are kosher,” I said, approaching.

The man looked up at me, and smiled.

“Actually, they are,” he said, reaching into the cooler and producing a package of Hebrew National hot dogs. “How many can I do you for?”

“Just one,” I said, stepping up to the garage and looking around. “So, I guess you do this every year? It looked like there was quite a crowd earlier.”

“Yeah, you just missed it,” he said, turning his attention to begin grilling a couple of hot dogs. “It’s great outreach for the community. I’m Aaron Kilraine, by the way.”

“Outreach?” I asked.

“Meeting your neighbors, talking to them and getting to know them – it’s something that we’ve lost these days. You know, we’ll reach out to people across the world, but ignore the ones at our doorstep! But here we are, blessed enough to live in a nation like this, and with all this opportunity – why not use it?”

I had a feeling. Something about the words he used, specially ‘outreach’ and ‘blessed.’

“Are you a pastor?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” he said.

And there we were. Jew versus Christian. My people had a long history of being assaulted, marginalized, and exterminated by the Church. And yes, I knew about the difference between Protestant and Catholic, but Germany has always been Lutheran. And when a certain event in the 1930s and ’40s hit, I absolutely blamed the Protestants. When I learned that the Pope approved of Hitler, I blamed the Catholics, too.

Later, I learned about the German Christians who ended up in the camps for opposing Hitler, and some of the more prominent pastors who actually tried to assassinate him. Adolf’s own religious beliefs were weird and complicated, and seemed to incorporate a little bit of anything that would get him followers. He even pretended to be Hindu for a while. American Christians tended to be friendly, but they also patronized me a lot, or fetishized my people and Israel.

So yeah, I braced myself for the worst.

“Grace Church down in Concord,” he said. “Would you like to come? We’d love to see you there, Miss–”

“December,” I said. “Lucy December. And no thanks.” I had more than a few reasons not to go to church, the most important one being that it would set me on fire.

“Nice to meet you, Miss December.”

“And it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Kilraine,” I said.

“So, Lucy,” Aaron handed me my hot dog, and I knew exactly where he was going with this. “If you were to die today, do you think you’d go to Heaven?”

Modern Jews do not believe in Hell. And you know what? Awesome. They’re good. I was more of a Medieval Jew, sorta, but that was beside the point. Thing is, vampires went to Hell. The curse that extended our lives also damned us. So I gave him the best answer I could: I shrugged and began to put mustard on my hot dog. Hey, it was a well-stocked condiment table after all.

“Well, if you open your Scripture, to Isaiah 52,” he began to say.

“Please don’t,” I said as I added relish. To my surprise, he acquiesced.

“All right,” Aaron Kilraine said. “But if you ever want to talk about it, you know who to ask. So, what brought you all the way out here? I don’t think you’re from the neighborhood, are you?”

“Nah, I’m not local,” I said, adding ketchup. “But how could I resist a good Halloween hot dog? I mean, sure, it’s not candy, but still.”

“Oh, we’ve got candy, too,” he said, and gestured to another table. I took a look.

Holy shit, he was giving out full candy bars. And they didn’t have tracts tied to them.

“Holy wow,” I self-censored. “Full bars?”

“Well, you’re supposed to be generous on Halloween,” he said. “And besides, if ‘m going to evangelize, I’d better back it up.”

“But what if someone doesn’t want to listen to your evangelism?” I asked as I began to munch away. Hot dogs were a special kind of food. Great fun when eaten out of doors, utterly depressing when eaten in your own home.

“Are you gonna want another hot dog?” he asked me.

“Well, yes, but that’s not my question,” I said.

“But it’s an answer,” he smiled. “I’m happy to make friends and make a difference in people’s lives. Yes, I will witness to them, but I won’t reject anybody for not listening.”

“Well, why do it?” I asked. “I mean, I’ve got to figure that you get a lot of people who want hot dogs, but almost nobody who stops to listen.”

“Let me ask you something,” Aaron said. “Imagine that everything I believe was true.”

I rolled my eyes. “I think I’ve heard this one before,” I said.

“Just humor me for a second,” he put another dog on the grill. “So, imagine that it’s true. Now, if it’s true, and I know it’s true, and I claim to love people – why wouldn’t I tell them? Why wouldn’t I help them? Would you keep quiet if you saw someone about to get run over by a bus?”

“But if someone’s in front of a bus, you can push them out of the way,” I said. “So, how would you try to push me?”

“I can’t,” he said. “The decision’s up to you. If I tried to force you to believe what I believe, it would only hurt you. And what kind of person would that make me?”

“Speaking as a Jew,” I said, and finished my hot dog. “You’d be a pretty typical Christian.”

“Well, I can’t defend that,” he said, immediately putting the second sausage in a bun. “I won’t defend people who do something evil. My church supports the nation of Israel, and we have a special love for your people.”

“I find that really patronizing,” I said.

“Then I’m sorry,” he maintained a smile as he handed my the hot dog. “Thank you for being honest.”

I looked into Aaron’s eyes, trying to find a hint of fraud, hypocrisy – anything that seemed disingenuous. He seemed just as sincere as Erin next door. Same planet, different worlds for those two. But their neighbor Jocelyn seemed so certain. Maybe she was loopy and nosy, but she might also have been on to something. Both of these people seemed quite genuine and nice, but there was a war going on in this neighborhood.

“So, do you know a lady by the name of Erin Walsh?” I asked.

“I do,” his gaze changed a bit. Slightly more guarded, calculating. “You know, she opens her house on Halloween, too. Did you go talk to her earlier?”

“I did,” I said. “Interesting lady.”

“She and my wife really get along,” he said. Unspoken thought: he didn’t. “I encourage you to pick her brain sometime I you plan on sticking around here. She’s very knowledgeable.”

Smooth move. “Yeah, I chatted with her a little bit,” I said. “I guess she’s not a huge fan of the barbecue you’ve got going on here.”

“Well, I can’t help that,” he said. “You can’t please everybody. Would you like to join my family for dinner? I’ve noticed how fast you took out that second hot dog.”

Behold, I had already eaten it.

“Well, maybe,” I said.

The door to the house opened, and an extremely tiny woman poked her head out. “I’m going to turn the orange lights off. Is that okay, honey?”

“That’s all right, Heather,” he said. “I think the crowd’s gone by now.”

Aaron’s wife noticed me. “Oh, hi!” she said. “Sorry, didn’t mean to ignore the last straggler. We’re wrapping up here – would you like to join us for dinner?”

“Your husband already offered,” I said. “By the way, hi, I’m Lucy.”

“And hi, I’m Heather,” she smiled, but then scrambled out of the way as three teenage boys charged through the door. I figured that the white boy was their son, with two of his friends.

“We’re heading out, Dad,” the one that I assumed to be part of the family said. “Movie’s starting in an hour!”

“Family dinner?” I asked Aaron, hoping that my one was lighthearted enough.

“Stay safe, you three,” Aaron said, and then turned to me. “We have family dinner almost every day of the week. Today, there’s a movie marathon at Cinemark.”

“Fair enough,” I said as I watched them go. “Is he your only child?”

“Those are three of our five kids,” he said.

“Huh?” I asked, and then felt guilty. And weirdly racist, maybe.

“Three adopted, two biological,” he said. “But they’re all our kids.”

“So, did you adopt first?” I asked. “If it’s all right to ask?”

“We adopted because we had the means, and the opportunity, and those children needed a family,” Aaron said.

“That’s admirable,” I said, and thought about Jocelyn’s spooky warning. “Hey, mind if I take a rain check on that dinner?”

“That’s all right,” he said.

I smiled. “You know, I think Heather should go invite Ms. Walsh over for dinner tonight.”

“What?” he asked.

“And don’t try to witness to her,” I said. “Just like, invite her over for a pleasant dinner.”

Aaron gave me an odd, appraising look. “Why did you say you came here?” he asked.

“Oh, your really nosy and loopy would-be clairvoyant neighbor hired me to keep you two from killing each other,” I said. “No biggie. By the way, thanks for the hot dogs.”

He laughed. I mean, he really laughed. Aaron Kilraine had to brace himself against the condiment table as he guffawed.

“Kill each other?” he asked. “Really? Did Jocelyn say that?”

I shrugged.

“We get along just fine with Erin,” he said. “Sure, it’s a little tense around Halloween, but we’re fine the rest of the year. We even trade recipes.”

“Still, invite her over,” I said. “Just between you and me, she’s a little sore over you celebrating her sacred festival with hot dogs.”

“You should see what she does on Christmas and Easter,” he said. “But I get it. We’ll go see her. But really, there’s no problem here. Nobody’s in danger.”

I had a sudden thought about the street, and who lived there. “Thank you for the reassurance,” I said. “I’m jut gonna go poke around another one of your neighbors, if you don’t mind.”

“Don’t get yourself in trouble,” he said. “And try to think about the things I asked you.”

“I will,” I said, and waved as I began to leave. “And thanks again for the hot dogs.”

“You already said that!”

Karen Hannock. The last person Jocelyn mentioned. The newbie. I wondered, if the others were at peace, what would I find in her house? Bomb ingredients and the Anarchist’s Cookbook? A suspicious collection of knives? A carton of Hot Wheels, still in their original packaging?

What I encountered was an elderly lady who actually looked old. Like, wears-a-shawl-and-sips-tea old. And as I stood on her front porch and she greeted me at the door, I have expected her to hand me one of those hard butterscotch candies that spontaneously generate when you hit seventy.

“Hello?” she asked. “You look a little old for a trick-or-treater, dear.”

I looked her in the eye, because we were the exact same height. Shrimpy. “Well, I won’t turn down free candy,” I said. “Mrs. Karen Hannock?”

“Yes, ma’am?” She gave me the most wonderful smile. I wanted to hug her and become an unofficial granddaughter. I mean, sure, I was probably a good eight centuries older, but she had that effect on me.

“My name’s Lucy,” I said. “Do you mind if I come in? I have a few questions for you – nobody’s in trouble, I swear.”

“Oh, dear, is everything all right?” she asked.

“Honestly, it’s kind of funny,” I said. “No one’s hurt, don’t worry.”

“Well, do come in,” Mrs. Hannock said, moving out of my way to allow me into her house. With the invitation set, I stepped past the threshold inside.

Wham. There was a two-foot-tall bronze crucifix affixed above the doorjamb. Its effect was lessened because I had an invitation, but it still hit me like a sledgehammer. The more faithful the person, the stronger the effect of a holy symbol. And this lady? Well, her faith had to be about average, because I could handle it. As for the rest of the house, it was decorated in exactly the way most people would imagine – lace doilies, comfy furniture, a nice area rug, all of that. Even a dining room table, fully-set with cloth napkins and multiple forks, despite no evidence of enough dinner guests to fill it.

“Are you okay, dearie?” she asked.

“Maybe I had one too many hot dogs,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Would you like some tea, Ms. December?” Mrs. Hannock asked.

“Of course,” I said. How could I say no to an offer so utterly grannylicious?

“Please make yourself at home,” she said as she shuffled off to the kitchen. “Now, you made it sound like there’s some trouble. What’s been going on?”

“Well, apparently nothing major,” I settled into a comfy chair, and took a look around. “Just some concerns about whether people are getting along on Halloween. What do you think of Jocelyn?”

“Jocelyn? Oh, she’s a dear heart,” the old woman said from the kitchen. “A little batty, but who among us isn’t?”

“Well, I know I’m batty,” I said, silently patting myself on the back for my razor-sharp wit.

Jocelyn had been telling the truth, Karen Hannock was clearly Catholic. My first hint was the gigantic crucifix. My second hint was also the gigantic crucifix. Also, what was with this neighborhood? Was there an “Irish only” residency clause?

“Aren’t we all,” Hannock returned with two mugs of tea. Not teacups, mugs. “Has she been in trouble?”

“Well, she seems to be worried that there is some trouble out here,” I said, accepting my mug with a smile. “In fact, that’s why I’m here.”

“Oh, are you a professional,” she paused. “Uh, a professional trouble-solver? Or a counselor?”

“Detective, really, but close enough,” I said.

“Oh, a detective? Has somebody committed a crime?” she asked.

“Well, no, I’m not police,” I chuckled. “I guess she just wanted me to poke my nose in and ask around.”

“Well, that’s silly,” she laughed. “So very silly. What was the problem, if I may ask?”

“Well, do you know Aaron Kilraine and Erin Walsh?”

“Well,” she said. “One of them lives on my left and one on my right, so I very well had better know them.”

“Good point,” I said. “Would you say that they get along?”

“Most of the time,” she said. “Just not on Halloween, or Christmas, or Easter, or July 4th, or New Years.”

“Ouch,” I said.

The old lady laughed. “But nobody’s in any danger. Why would they be? They have their silly little rivalry and snipe at each other, but what damage does it do?”

“Well, that Jocelyn lady seems to think it does,” I said, and sipped at the tea. English Breakfast? Nah, probably Irish Breakfast. Let’s just keep with the theme. “Hey, I’m curious, is Jocelyn Irish, too?”

She laughed again, still just as pleasant-sounding. “Dear, I’m the only Irish person on this block,” Hannock said. “Well, the only Irish-born. “The others are second or third generation, all of them. I know I don’t have an accent, but I’ve been here for a long time.”

“That’s understandable,” I said. Hey, I didn’t have my medieval accent anymore. It was fair.

“Though I’d love to go back sometime,” she said. “But Ireland’s not the same anymore, you know. Not since the Troubles.”

“It’s a shame how that happens,” I said.

“It really is,” she agreed. “Protestants versus Catholics, when half of the time they don’t even believe!”

I took another brief glance at the massive Crucifix on her threshold. It wasn’t hurting me that much through exposure now, and in fact I almost felt completely comfortable. Maybe it was the tea?

“It’s really sad when religion and politics turn violent, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Oh, it is,” she said. “In fact, Ireland used to be a very accepting land. Did you know that when England kicked out the Jews, it was the Irish who took them in?”

Oh yeah, I knew that one really, really well.

“Yeah, but you’ve always been mean to snakes,” I joked.

She laughed again, so joyful and infectious that I joined in.

“There never were any snakes on the Emerald Isle,” Karen said. “That was just a metaphor.”

“A metaphor for what?” I asked, jokingly. “For Druids?”

“Sort of,” she said. “Pagans, of course. But also monsters, demons, fomors, many kinds of creatures.”

“You seem pretty knowledgeable about this,” I said.

“Well, when you love your homeland the way I do, you learn things after a while,” she said.

“It sounds like you really love Ireland,” I said, and glanced at that cross again. Come to think of it, it wasn’t affecting me at all. Even with an invitation, there should have been some effect, some ambient heat. But there was none, nothing after that first burst when I entered the place.

“Oh, you should always leave a little bit of your heart at home,” she said. “Though I must say, my heart is certainly here, too. I just care so much for this little street.”

So what I felt had to be the threshold, but that made no sense. An invitation always canceled out threshold power. But then, if I had entered a domain belonging to another power. A strong one.

“In fact,” Karen Hannock said. “I care so much for it that I am going to kill them both before their feud disturbs our peace.”

Of course that crucifix didn’t affect me. There was no faith attached to it.

“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, taking a sip of her tea. “I’m sure you’ve figured out that I’m not human just as readily as I know you’re a vampire.”

I set the mug down. “Who are you?” I asked.

Dammit, had I really gone into this unarmed?

“My name is Caorthannach,” she said, and stood to her feet. “And I hate to be a stickler, but I need to hear you say it out loud. Everybody mispronounces it.”

“Queer-hannock?” I said.

“You are pronouncing it correctly, but I can tell that you spell it wrong in your head,” she said. “C-A-O-R-T-H-A-N-N-A-C-H, which yes, is pronounced like ‘queerhannock.’ Now, could you say it again?”

Oh, Karen Hannock. Witty.

“Caorthannach?” I tried again, attempting to remember the spelling so I could google her later.

“That’s right, dear,” she said, and gave me a sweet, friendly, old-lady smile. “Before mankind set foot on the island, I was there. I an Fire-Spitter, Mother of Devils, Queen of ash and smoke.”

“Mother of devils?” I stood up.

“Well, they claim ‘the’ devil, but I have nothing to do with that,” she said. Her smile and tone still seemed friendly, but her eyes had begun to swim with the deep orange of burning embers. “Monsters, demons, fomors – I have mothered many kinds of creatures, though none still live in the homeland.”

“Driven out like snakes, eh?” I glanced around, looking for something I could use as a weapon. She had an umbrella. Maybe I could swing an umbrella at her.

She nodded. “Yes. It was that son of a Roman slave, Patrick. You know, if he were merely a missionary,I would not have minded. He could have brought only his faith, and I would have allowed him to make his converts if he bowed to me properly. But he did not. He disrespected me, and my claim.”

“You know, I don’t know the first thing about St. Patrick,” I said. The kitchen! She had to have knives, right? I took a careful, slow half-inching step in that direction.

Caorthannach spat at me, and a ball of flames shot by my face. It stank of burning poison, one of the most foul things I had ever smelled.

“Don’t try it, dear,” I said. “He fought me, and we battled for days. I spat my burning venom into the wells of the land to kill him with thirst, but he prayed to his god and found the strength to seal me in the deepest caverns of the earth. There I slept for untold centuries, sealed by the unity of the land, until the Troubles weakened the seal enough to set me free.”

“Cool story,” I said. “And nice cup of tea. So let’s cap of a pleasant evening by not murdering your neighbors, okay?”

“I awoke, but the land was no longer my home,” she said. Along with the fire in her eyes, her proportions had begun to shift and change. Her mouth was wider, nearly a Glasgow smile. Her skin had begun to darken to the color of charred meat. “And I felt myself drawn here, halfway across the world, for reasons I could not understand. But I know what I need to do now.”

Claws. She had grown claws. Still looked like a sweet granny, though.

“And what do you need to do now?’ I asked. Maybe I could punch her. She looked old. She was probably frail.

“Retake Halloween,” she said. “Or Samhain, or whatever people want to call it. It really doesn’t matter. But I will begin with this neighborhood, this small community. The people claim to be Irish, but look at them. The Walsh woman plays at deep magic, but knows nothing. And what does she believe? Unity and peace? How pathetic.”

“I don’t know, she seemed nice,” I said.

“They all seem nice,” Caorthannach said. “But look at them. Look at what they do. And the Kilraine family? They don’t even have the decency to be Catholic! He has no idea of the heritage of his own homeland. But tonight, I can end both families while they dine under the same roof.”

She transformed in a rush, shedding her human form. Standing before me now was a gaunt, skeletal figure, flames licking its charred flesh. A pair of wings unfolded, tattered and bony, streaked through with an amber magma glow. Her fangs dripped burning toxicity down her chin.

“You know, I really don’t know much about Irish politics,” I said. “So, why not relax take a breath, chat with Erin about her beliefs, and maybe enjoy one of Aaron’s hot dogs? They’re kosher. I think maybe you could barbecue one yourself just by holding it.”

She laughed again, and the sheer sweet pleasantness of that sound took me off-guard.

“I like you,” Caorthannach said. “I don’t want to kill you, but I need to get you out of the way.”

“Well,” I said, and took a careful step forward, focusing on the situation, waiting for her to lower her guard. “You could take my advice, you know. There’s no need to be all monstrous.”

Caorthannach spat fire at my feet, forcing me to leap back as it burst on the floor, lighting the area rug ablaze.

“That was a nice rug!” I said.

“I can get another one,” Caorthannach said, and reached above her door. She removed the bronze crucifix, and drove it into the floor at her house’s threshold. I could feel the power settle around the borders of the house, now infused with an extra layer of holiness.

“You are going to stay put,” she said, opening her front door. “Make yourself at home, dear.”

I jumped over the fire and tried to run after Caorthannach as she left the building, only to hit an invisible wall of energy so powerful that it knocked me onto my ass. Felt like an electric shock. The bronze cross gleamed at me.

Outside, the fiery demon approached Aaron Kilraine’s house, and called him out.

“Kilraine!” she shouted. “Walsh! I have come for you! Come out here and face your deaths without fear!”

I threw my coat over the burning rug, smothering the fire and putting it out before it could spread. Then I scrambled, running around the house, looking for another exit. Caorthannach’s voice echoed as I searched.

“I am Caorthannach! Mother of Devils! Firespitter! I am the moment of your death!”

With any luck, she’d keep up the theatrics long enough for me to find a way out. But the house’s threshold, powered by that crucifix, was too strong. Raw supernatural energy mixed with untyped holiness. She couldn’t have made a better anti-vampire ward if she had tried. But I had to figure out a way to get past it, or breach it if necessary.

The only useful ingredient I could find in the kitchen was salt. I looked for candles, powdered silver, anything I could use in a magical ritual of my own. Nothing. Even the knives were dull. I made a mental note to tell Caorthannach about Cutco if I ever got out of there.

“Come out and face your deaths, and I will spare your family! I will allow them to live if you lay down your lives!”

It was a stupid hope. Even if I had all the ingredients, how long would it take to draw a circle? Summon something to breach the barrier? But what other choice did I have? The barrier was held up by a crucifix, the archetypal holy symbol. Trying to disturb it would burn me to a crisp. But I had to think of something. There was no way her speech was going to last much longer.

“Your phones will not function! You cannot call the police! You and your family are helpless! Come out and meet your doom!”

Caorthannach was tantalizingly visible out the window, standing in her neighbor’s driveway as she taunted him. Burning venom dripped from her fangs, sizzling on the pavement. Only a few yards away, but it might as well have been a mile. That damned cross. Gleaming at me. If only I could just move it. Somehow. I threw a handful of salt at the crucifix, but nothing happened. Of course not. It couldn’t without other ingredients, of which there were none. I had to think of another way.

“This is your last chance, before I set your house ablaze! Will you let your family burn?”

I looked away from the crucifix. Wait. The table. The place settings.

Aaron Kilraine’s front door opened. He and Erin Walsh stepped out, into the driveway. Caorthannach laughed.

I reached the table and wrapped my hands in those cloth napkins. When I felt sufficiently padded, I turned and ran back to the massive crucifix planted into the floor. The heat of its holiness burned against me like a blast furnace, but I grabbed it by the arms, pin coursing through me but the cloth covering my hands sparing me from an immediate fate. I wrenched it out with all of my might, the floor splintering a I pulled the cross free. The magical threshold barrier fizzled and vanished, though I barely noticed it against the sheer pain of the holy symbol in my hands.

I spun around, swinging the massive crucifix in my arms, and hammer-threw it through the front window. Glass shattered as the bronze holy symbol hurtled like a discus at Caorthannach.

“Tonight you die, mortals!” she said. “Tonight you will taste the wrath of Caor-”

The cross beaned her in the head, and she fell over with a squawk. I hurled myself through the window next, crashing through the remaining glass and tumbling onto the ground outside. I rolled, using my momentum to gather my legs underneath myself and spring again, aiming to tackle the monster.

Caorthannach had just begun to get back to her feet when I tackled her like a running back, sending us both down to the ground again. I used my moment of surprise to pin her arm to her back and try to stress the shoulder, while crushing one of her wings to the pavement. The two humans stumbled back, away from us, but didn’t run away.

Caorthannach regained herself and twisted, freeing her arm from my grasp as she began to stand up. She backhanded me in the face as she hissed and tried to turn around, spewing flaming venom from her mouth. My head snapped back from the impact and I nearly lost my grip, but I clung to her the only way a tiny person like me could: by becoming a spider monkey. I wrapped both legs around Caorthannach’s waist to stay on and shifted my weight, forcing her to unsteadily fall to her knees again. She tried to buck and throw me off, but I clung and threw my arms around her neck from behind, forcing her into a sleeper hold.

Caorthannach threw herself backwards, landing against the ground hard enough to jar my grip loose. She elbowed me in the gut and attempted to scramble away, but I hooked a foot around her ankle, forcing her to stumble again.

“How did you get free?” she snarled.

I threw my weight back onto Caorthannach while she was unsteady, forcing her down with myself on top of her. I began punching her in the face before she could recover.

“You underestimated the power of napkin hands!” I declared, the cloth protecting my knuckles as I pummeled her.

“What’s going on?” Aaron Kilraine asked.

“Can’t talk!” I said. “Busy punching!”

Caorthannach began to spew flaming venom again, lighting my napkin-padded hands on fire. I squeaked and pulled back, smothering the fire in my coat before it could spread. She kicked me off her and stood, letting out an ear-piercing shriek.

“Come on, Caorthannach,” I said, scrambling to my feet. “You don’t have to do this. We can have another cup of tea inside.”

“Are you always so polite to monsters?” she asked.

“Well, I’m one, too,” I said. She lunged, feinted, and then spat another fireball at my face. I ducked it and rammed into Caorthannach’s torso, wrapping my arms around her middle in another grapple attempt. She slashed her claws at my face as I went in, but I turned my head, taking the blow on my cheek and not in my eyes.

“Do something!” Erin said to Aaron. “We have to help!”

“I’m fine!” I said. “I’ve got the situation under control!”

“She’s right, you know,” Caorthannach said to both of them, and raked her claws across my back, tearing into my coat. “You should stay safe, out of my grasp. I’ll be coming for you next, anyway.”

I suplexed her. Just kept my grip on her, flipped backwards, and slammed the Fire-Spitting Mother of Devils headfirst into the ground. She had not been expecting that. After hitting her head, her wings crunched underneath her body, and when I let go she flopped to the pavement. This gave me enough time to leap up to my feet and tackle Caorthannach again, moving to pin her.

She came to and thrashed under me, nearly knocking me off again. I landed another punch to Caorthannach’s chin, and she lashed out, grabbing me and pinning my arms to my sides. She opened her mouth and I flinched, steeling myself for a point-blank burninating.

But she hesitated, and when I realized it I slammed my forehead into her nose, forcing Caorthannach to let go. I kicked away from her and rolled back onto my feet just as she stood, as well. The momentum of the fight ebbed a little, and we faced each other, a few feet apart. I stood between Caorthannach and the humans.

“Why are you doing this?” Caorthannach asked. “Why are you fighting for them?”

“The real question is, why are you trying to kill them?” I asked.

“Do not try to turn the subject on me,” she said. “And I told you. Their petty squabbling is irritating. Their celebration dishonors the festival of spirits.”

Erin elbowed Aaron.

“I will retake my former glory,” she continued. “I will establish a new reign of terror!”

“No you won’t,” I said. “And you know it. Murdering a couple of innocent humans isn’t going to get you jack shit, Caorthannach. You don’t rule anymore, and there’s no way you ever will again. But what have you got instead?”

She snarled, and took a step closer to me.

“Because I’m seeing something else,” I said. “When I met you a few minutes ago, you wore a mask. How long have you been wearing it? How long have you been pretending to be a sweet, generous old lady?”

She lunged at me, taking a swipe at my face with her claws. I ducked in low, kicking at the idea of Caorthannach’s ankle and forcing her to buckle onto her knees.

“There are things I just can’t ignore, Caorthannach,” I said. “You’re supposed to be this horrible, vicious tyrant of a devil, aren’t you?”

She lashed again at me, but I caught her arm and twisted it behind her back.

“Way I see it, you’ve been holding back this whole fight,” I continued. “In fact, you could have burned my whole face off a moment ago, but you didn’t. Why?”

She twisted, nearly freeing her arm, and did spew a few flames in my direction. They missed.

“Because I don’t think you want to,” I said. “You don’t want to kill me, so that’s why you tried to lock me in your house. And you spent how long with your little dramatic speech out here? How long when you could have just attacked and fried them?”

Caorthannach’s arm tensed, and she threw me to the ground, easily strong enough to just fling me around. I landed on my back, and gathered up my legs as she lunged to tackle me, hitting her in the stomach with a thrust kick from ground level. She tensed, but still tried to grapple me down. I squirmed under the monster and rolled, wrapping first my arms and then legs around her arm, pulling her to the ground in an arm bar.

“What I mean to say is,” I grunted while trying to wrench her elbow out of joint. “You didn’t kill me when you could. You didn’t even take a pot shot at those two, and they’re standing in the open like sitting ducks!”

“Hey!” Erin protested. Aaron moved immediately to shield her.

Caorthannach strained, tensing her arm and pulling against me, managing to bend at the elbow despite the pressure I put on her. I loosened my grip for just a second, letting her pull away so I could use her momentum to swing up onto the downed monster’s shoulders. I wrapped my legs around her neck and arm, pinning them together in a triangle choke even as I kept my grasp on her forearm. Ancient demons never had to deal with MMA in the old legends.

Caorthannach twisted and writhed, trying to break free as she coughed up more fiery poison. I held on tightly.

“And how did you trap me?” I asked. “You used a cross. A cross that wouldn’t have been effective at all without faith!”

She snarled and gasped, her free hand clawing at my knees to try to get herself some air.

“So the thing is, Caorthannach,” I said. “I don’t think it’s just a disguise anymore. I think you’ve become the mask!”

And just like that, she went slack in my grip. She didn’t pass out, and she didn’t die. Caorthannach just stopped fighting me. She even stopped spewing fire as she choked. I looked into her eyes, and released my hold on her.

Caorthannach rolled away from me, propping herself on her hands and knee, and gasped for air. I stood shakily to my feet.

“What the hell – heck – what the heck is going on?” Aaron Kilraine asked she began to step up to the two of us.

“Hold it,” I said to him. “Please ask your questions later, we’re kind of busy at the moment.”

I kept my eyes on Caorthannach, in case she had any more tricks up her sleeve. But she remained on the ground even after she caught her breath. Boiling, steaming tears began to drip onto the pavement.

“Dammit!” she hissed. “I can’t! You’re right! I can’t! But I am Caorthannach! Mother of Devils! Scourge of the Isle! Firespitter!”

I stood over her, and extended a hand. She looked up at me, her expression a twisted confusion of pain and frustration. And then she took my hand, and I knew the fight was over.

“And now you’re something else,” I said. “It takes a really strong person to adjust to change, and a stronger one to make up for an old life.”

“Can you just tell me what’s going on?” Aaron asked.

“Monsters are real,” I said. “Deal with it. Please submit further questions in writing after we redeem our friend here.”

Caorthannach finally began to stand up, and I patted her on the back.

“Hey,” I said. “I guess this means that Jocelyn lady was right, doesn’t it?”

Caorthannach chuckled, and all remaining threat left the situation. “She’s crazy,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, she wasn’t just trying to fire-vomit all over her neighbors,” I said. “And hey, just so there’s no hard feelings, I kind of ruined your window and several of your napkins.”

She shrugged.

“Anyway, I think it’s a good time to turn back into Karen for now, before the other neighbors get really curious. And then, I’ve just got one more question.”

The skeletal fire monster began to shrink, turning into an old lady again. Sure, now she was a bruised and bleeding old lady, but an old lady nonetheless. I turned toward Aaron Kilraine and Erin Walsh.

“Can we come over for dinner?” I asked. “I think you, Erin, and ‘Karen’ have a lot to talk about tonight.”

He looked at us, really analyzed us, and then nodded. “If you even hint that you might harm my family,” he said.

“Your family is under my protection,” the monster in a Karen Hannock disguise said. “I won’t harm any of you. I can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Because what matters now is community,” I said. “It’s Halloween. We should be having fun. I know you guys all celebrate it differently – Erin, for you it’s sacred and solemn. Aaron, for you it’s an evangelistic barbecue. And Caorthannach, I have no idea what you’re going to do with the holiday. Really, I’m drawing a blank. But I think the most important thing right now is that nobody has to fight anymore. You’re a community.”

“She’s right,” Erin said. “Aaron, the way that you celebrate Halloween always annoyed me, and that isn’t likely to change. But I don’t have to be snippy with you about it.”

“I can afford to keep it a little quieter,” he said. I won’t be in your face about it. If it’s too much, just say something, all right?”

Caorthannach herself remained quiet, her expression warming an softening as she watched them. Sure, there was about to be a very awkward conversation over dinner, but I thought that the situation was going to be all right. She had spent thousands of years trapped beneath the earth, but now had a chance at friends. Family. The three of them were resolving everything like the ending to an old sitcom, all full of hugs and happiness.  The day had been saved by the Power of Friendship.  Well that, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.