* * * * *
The barghest appeared in the back of Grant’s attic, behind the man himself, and collapsed to the ground. “Look alive, John,” it growled. “Intruders in the cemetery.”
Grant stood in front of an altar covered with a rich purple cloth and piled high with food and liquor. He wore a loose-fitting black suit and was crafting an elaborate symbol on the floor, like a cross flanked by coffins.
“That would be why I employ you as a guard,” Grant said. He did not pause or take his eyes off the mixture of cornmeal and ash falling through his fingers.
The creature whined. “I am… injured.”
“I think… yes.”
Grant finished the symbol in silence, then wiped his hands on a clean white cloth. He glanced over his shoulder at the blue flames leaking out of the black dog.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “I was about to parlay with someone who can help you.”
On the floor nearby sat a djembe, which he carried over to the symbol on the ground. He lit four candles on the altar, then tucked the drum between his legs, crouched down slightly and began to play. At first, the beat was simple enough, almost like a waltz. But soon the pace quickened, more like the hoofbeats of a horse in gallop, a man’s heart full of the fear of impending mortality. All the while, Grant chanted in a language as old as man, his hands a blur, the candle flames brightening until their flames were blue as ghostly blood.
When it seemed that the beat couldn’t be sustained any longer, the symbol erupted in the same blue fire and a tall man appeared. His black suit was more tailored than Grant’s, with tails and a silky white shirt underneath a purple vest. A top hat covered his long white hair, and his left eye was hidden behind the smoky lens of the glasses he wore. The right lens, however, was missing, revealing an empty eye socket. This wasn’t surprising given that the rest of his face was a bare skull.
“Baron Samedi,” Grant said, bowing over the drum.
“John Grant.” The baron’s voice was deep and rich, with a hint of humor. “Are you already upon the seventh incarnation of your soul?”
“Not yet.” Grant gestured at the altar. “Please, have yourself some piman. I’ve got a deal for you.”
“Ah, bon, straight to business.” The skeletal figure slipped bony fingers around a bottle filled with hot peppers and drank the rum inside like it was water.
The barghest whined and Grant rolled his eyes. “First, what would you ask for healing that lazy mutt behind me? I’m right fed up with his tomfoolery but it’d be a shame to have to find a new one.”
The baron rubbed his chin. “That is quite a wound. I have not seen its like since… ah, but knowledge is like a pretty girl: you must court it with gifts before you take it to bed.”
“How much?” Grant asked.
“Five of your fattest ghosts,” Samedi replied. “One will be consumed in the process, the other four are for me to… enjoy.”
Grant looked back at the barghest and frowned. “Damn veterinarians always charge an arm and a leg. Fine, deal.”
The baron grabbed a fat cigar and lit it on one of the candles. “Now that I have something to look forward to, what is the real reason you summoned me here?”
Grant smiled. “I propose to help you corner your market, so to speak. Here’s my plan…”
* * * * *
The five weary travelers made it back to the house in record time, mainly because Miranda drove like a demon while Parker maintained a misdirection illusion on the car so people would ignore it while getting out of the way. Nobody said a word.
Booker waited for them on the doorstep, frowning and fidgeting. “How d-did it go?” he asked. Miranda just shook her head. They all trudged inside and Booker followed. He gasped when he saw the bandages on Beatrice’s back.
“Are you… is that… should I…”
“I’ll have a cup of tea and a salve for this mess,” Parker said, gesturing at his arm and side. Booker stared at him blankly for a moment before rushing off. “Oh, and a sandwich. Peanut butter. No crusts.”
“You do think with your stomach,” Miranda said. She sank into the couch and massaged her right calf.
“Among other bits, rarely his brain,” Anthony muttered. He paced back and forth in the living room until his temper overflowed. “We could have just waited!” he shouted.
“It could have gone for Grant,” Miranda said. “We weren’t to know.”
“And if Grant had come, we could have fended him off, too!”
“Or we could have been hit by lightning. Or a meteor. We don’t know what he can do.” Her own temper rose to the occasion and she found herself on her feet, arms akimbo. “Give it a rest, will you? It’s done.”
“You just wanted to see the sword again,” he said, jabbing a finger at her. “Any excuse, eh? Even if it almost got us killed?”
“You aren’t half full of yourself, are you? Well, let me tell you something–”
“Oh!” Booker interjected, nearly dropping the armful of creams he carried. “I nearly forgot. In the b-basement. You need to s-s-see.”
Anthony made it downstairs first by virtue of his longer legs. He froze above the foot of the stairs and Miranda had to lean over him to look.
Hovering in the air in front of the door to the lands Below was a word, scrawled in foot-high letters of blue-white flame: TOMORROW.
“Is that–” Miranda started to ask.
“Not from Below,” Anthony interjected. “It must be Grant. Where are you going?”
Miranda was already halfway out the door. “Upstairs. If Grant’s planning something for tomorrow, I’m going to prepare him a nice welcome party.” She shot him a look that would have melted sand into glass. ”You can sit here and wait since you’re so fond of it.”