Graveyard Waltz by Jessie Thomas
The grave had been dugup long before I got there.
“Huh.” With a hand on my hip, I sunk the end of the shovel into the muddy, overgrown grass and leaned my weight toward the wooden handle. “Well, that’s not good.”
Understatement of the year? Maybe.
As the only necromancer around these parts, I was pretty much the self-appointed purveyor of the nocturnal things that lurked around our city’s burial grounds. Never quite know what you’ll find once you step beyond the gates after dark.
Or, really, what might find you.
Whatever happens is totally on you, by the way, because you’ve been warned. I was used to it—weird was merely a subjective term once you’d sunken a knife into the rotting chest cavities of feral vampires and raised the dead on the regular.
Weird was where my nights began.
Last time? It started with a mutilated feral vampire in a Forest Lawn mausoleum and ended with a cult worshipping at the altar of their lethal venom. Not that it wasn’t a total shitshow of supernatural proportions, but in retrospect three months later, it hadn’t been all terrible. Sure, the homicidal cultists did a lot of damage and my sister stopped speaking to me.
Though the venom worshippers weren’t the cause of the implosion between me and Ellie.
After we left some serious carnage in the backyard of a fairly affluent neighborhood, the whole ordeal was reduced to a bewildering story that took up too much airtime on the evening news for about two weeks. Unavoidable, really, when a locally-famous cupcake proprietor winds up dead at the bottom of a feral vampire nest she’d been amassing for her cult.
And thanks to the destruction wrought by said cultists, I’d discovered my powers of necromancy now included undoing vampirism.
So, yeah. That was a thing now.
I mean, I’d only been a necromancer for about a decade—give or take a year, maybe two—and it’d never been brought to my attention before. You’d think necromancy that powerful would come with some sort of warning.
Speaking of warnings: this right here felt like one.
It’s not giving me any warm, tingly feelings, that’s for sure.
It was a sued-for-every-damn-penny-I-owned kind of screwed, because my client—who’d been dead for two years from a car wreck, and whose ghost I’d spoken to this past weekend—appeared to be nowhere in sight.
I’m sure I don’t have to point out that the dead don’t just walk off unless there’s necromantic rituals involved. Buffalo didn’t have a constant grave robbing/bone theft problem, though the cops would tell you the real problem was yours truly.
Someone stole my dead client from her own grave, and I didn’t have enough figurative or literal pennies to deal with the impending lawsuit from her fiancé. Nor did I have the patience to hunt down the nefarious creature responsible for this utter bullshit. But I’d have to, since part-time burial ground protector was now in my job description.
Graveyards, based on prior experience, were always battlefields.
Groaning, I dropped my dirt-speckled bag of necromantic tools onto the grass, fingers grazing the dagger at my thigh out of instinct. Carting around assorted ritual supplies in the humidity was, if you’ll pardon my French, a bitch. I’d take the bitter winter cold over the heat, though the frozen ground was never fun to contend with. Personal policy insured the use of a full ritual for cemetery resurrections out of respect for the dead. Anything else—like an urgent, let’s say, sudden death or homicide—required the dagger.
The midnight air tangled around me in soft currents as the humidity crawled across my skin and into my lungs. Just enough to make an uncomfortable sweat trickle down the backs of my knees beneath my trusty, grass-stained denim. I’d worn a lightweight plaid button-down over my dusty pink tank top, but the dampness still pooled under my arms anyway. The small of my back and other more intimate places were starting to feel a bit…swampy.
Leaving the shovel buried in the grass, I nearly jumped out of my skin from the handle’s hollow thwack behind me once it tipped over. Too soft to hold its weight. Any noise ricocheted farther in this quaint graveyard than it would’ve in a larger cemetery like Forest Lawn, but there weren’t any groundskeepers on duty. The rusted padlock around the gate hadn’t presented a challenge, either. It was just me and the rows upon rows of silent, mossy tombstones far from the outskirts of downtown.
Or so I hoped.
“Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
Would’ve been a smidge easier to conjure one of the ghosts haunting this place for a friendly little chat—I could feel them in the shadows like a whisper on the back of my neck—but I was getting ahead of myself. And if I found a chatty ghost? The others would swarm, and I’d be stuck here all night…
After a solid whack against one sweaty palm, my flashlight threw a wide ribbon of white light over the open grave. I toed at the disturbed soil, dragging my boot across the dirt like it would uncover a helpful clue left by a clumsy thief.
“Where did you go?” I paced around the edge and listened to the clumps of loose earth patter into an empty coffin. Considered how in the hell I’d explain this to her fiancé, or if I could lie my way out until I located the corpse. Lying to a client’s family made me queasy. “Who woke you up and stole you away?”
Why, I asked myself, why the hell would someone do it?
A gentle wind cut through the haze and toyed with the ginger strands that escaped my ponytail, made the edge of my shirt curl backward. I loved the scent of the nighttime air during the summer; the clean, earthy smell of dew settling on blades of grass. It cleared my scattered thoughts. I lowered to one knee, scooping up a handful of soil that had the color of dark chocolate under a waxing moon.
“This reeks of magical bullshit,” I said aloud, to myself.
Don’t get me wrong, witches and warlocks aren’t terrible people. Not all of them, at least. But they sure do preoccupy themselves with trifling grudges. And, well, let’s just say that necromancy doesn’t exactly play nice with other socially acceptable forms of witchcraft.
“But,” I drawled, “most witches and warlocks can’t do true necromantic spells, so what gives? If the body is out there, it couldn’t have traveled far. A reanimation spell has a hang time of like…” The dirt sifted through my fingers in a puff of dark brown haze. I brushed the rest onto my jeans while I rose to my feet. “A few hours, tops. The magic degrades, turns them into a zombie…gets ugly real fast. They forget the soul. They always forget the most important part. It’s why they suck at it.”
Wasn’t the only ransacked grave I’d seen in recent weeks, either. It just happened to be the first one to interfere with my job. The loss of a paycheck was the furthest thing from my mind. What freaked me out more than anything was someone stealing corpses and bones. Now, grave robbing went back centuries—early physicians stole bodies for science. Who’s to say that witches or warlocks wouldn’t do that in the pursuit of their craft? In the quest for a better reanimation spell to rival my necromancy?
Sweet Jesus, please no more weirdo cults. I’m done with cult and cult-adjacent crap.
“Missing bones,” I muttered absently.
Retrieving the shovel and my travel bag full of necromantic tools, I dragged the metal end along the grass to wipe away some of the mud. It hadn’t rained a lot this afternoon, but it’d left the earth softened and still messy in some places. My boots squelched across a stray puddle.
“Stolen corpses…I should’ve looked harder. My fault.”
My mind was a crowded place these days.
I’d tried to keep tabs on the other disturbed graves, but they’d been random. No pattern from what I could tell. Wasn’t in every single burial ground I’d visited, though they’d started to show up with enough frequency that I’d mentioned it to Devyn, Nate, and Rhys. Rhys, who could wring more information out of the cops, hadn’t heard much about it.
“Find the bodies, wherever they are…”
How many bodies are we talking now? Ten or fifteen? What would a coven do with that many corpses? Grind up the bones and use the human paste for spell work?
An army of zombies?
Every possibility seemed worse than the last.
An owl sung its lonely, mournful song somewhere far off while the leaves kept rhythm with the wind. The graveyard was rustic, aging, the roughhewn paths reclaimed by unmown grass and enormous weeds. Lots of crooked granite slabs and Celtic crosses. A few small, neglected crypts. Not many new burials here, but according to my client’s fiancé, hers was a family plot going back generations.
Gravel crunched under the treads of my boots. “I won’t get a warm welcome from any of the covens, but there’s a lot of questions that need answering. I mean, damn. You can’t just go around stealing dead people like that. Where’s the respect? The decency?”
And this one felt like a personal attack.
Once my flashlight found another open grave, a chill raked its claws down my arms. This one looked more imperfect, like a gnarly weed forcing itself through gravel. The realization hit soon after: something had pushed upward from beneath the ground. Not shoveled on this side of the grave—almost as if the bones clawed their way out from six feet under through their coffin and the dirt. The chill blossomed into a shiver that rippled from the base of my spine to my neck.
My mouth dropped open. “No,” I whispered. “Reanimation spells aren’t that powerful…are they?”
Red and blue flickered across crooked headstones, revealing names half-hidden behind years of moss and filth. I froze where I stood.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Sneaky bastards. Hadn’t heard the wheels disrupt the gravel on the road or the low noise of a running engine. Not even a courtesy siren. They’d turned their lights on at the last second, snaking through the dark to hunt me down like a predator. I’d made a mistake in assuming I was safer here in a forgotten burial ground. That this was somehow out of their jurisdiction. An afterthought.
The creaky whine of a car door opening provoked a grimace. The flashlight fell out of my hand, glanced off the toe of my boot, and rolled into the grass where the crickets hummed. Gnats buzzed around my sweaty temples. I swatted away a mosquito shrieking into my ear before it had a chance to feast on me and considered the irony.
Ha. You’re so great at priorities, Sera. Way to go.
“Seraphina Mason,” a distantly familiar, masculine voice called. His gruff, no-nonsense tone warped my name into a command. I tried to match it to a face, a badge number, but I don’t think I’d cared to keep the specifics on file for future reference.
Didn’t matter who was doing the arresting, anyway, because I was screwed.
Two for two, and my odds didn’t seem to be improving. That was usually how my nights went when there was paranormal shenanigans afoot.
“Drop the shovel. Hands where I can see them.”
Why can’t I ever work in peace?
I let the bag drop first, then the shovel, the end of the handle bouncing before it came to rest. No reason to make a run for it. I turned around with a heavy sigh, squinting at the strobe lights that burned my eyeballs. As I lifted my dirt-streaked hands in front of me, the figure by the glossy unmarked car emerged from a halo of light. Blue and red reflected off the handcuffs that dangled lazily from his fingertips.
I stifled a groan and pasted over it with a tight smirk. “Fancy seeing you here, Detective Monroe.”
“Yeah, yeah, highlight of my fuckin’ night,” he answered. “Not gonna run on me, are ya?”
“Doesn’t seem worth the effort.”
“Smart move.” He was annoyed with me. And exhausted. And reaching stratospheric levels of resentment. So, really, this was typical.
“You sound awfully chipper tonight, Detective.”
Casually dressed for the warm weather, silk necktie flapping in the breeze, he sauntered over to show me his credentials despite having been through this charade before. He’d pushed up the sleeves of his dress shirt like it’d been a last resort against the humidity. The police lights did nothing to hide the sweat on his brow.
By my modest estimation, Detective Monroe couldn’t have been much older than Rhys. He had an overachiever sort of glint in his eye with a smarmy undercurrent, a sharp jawline that bordered on menacing, and a receding hairline. His fancy-pants cop credentials were the source of my distrust.
That feeling was always mutual.
“Don’t get mouthy on me, Miss Mason. My patience ain’t tolerating that shit tonight,” he warned, as if his patience hadn’t already been on wafer-thin ice since he woke up this morning, and somehow the sound of his condescending Miss Mason grated against my ears.
Detective Monroe was a Buffalo boy through and through—those long, nasally A’s running wild through my name gave him away. Not that my own Buffalo-born accent was much different, you know, but the harshness tended to vary by location. How had Nate made it smooth as whiskey even when the two of us wanted to rip each other’s throats out?
“They’ve had me chasin’ you around the entire damn county for longer than anyone oughta,” he grumbled.
“’Least I keep you busy,” I offered. “Thought you didn’t like being stuck in that office of yours—you said it didn’t have any windows. What did I do this time to piss you off?”
He circled around me to unbuckle the thigh holster that held my rose gold dagger.
“I’ll take that, thanks. Got anything else on ya?”
I managed a tense frown, bereft without the ass-kicking extension of my necromantic powers. He’d been reluctant to give it back after our paths crossed last time, and if he didn’t let me keep it once I got out of this, I’d be pissed. “Nope.”
“You sure?” he pressed. “Any weird shit in that bag? Nothing that’s gonna blow up in my face? I got hit with one of those—the hell do you people call them?—anyway, fuckin’ witchcraft brew blew up on me couple weeks back. Made me sick for days. I’m not fucking with that shit anymore.”
You probably deserved it, jackass.
“Candles and matches. Some lavender.” I attempted to shrug one shoulder when he grabbed my wrists. “Just the same occult crap you know and love.”
He grunted in his usual exasperated fashion. Perfectly unwilling to break ranks with much of the law enforcement around here, Detective Monroe did not enjoy getting mixed up in paranormal affairs. If he caught even a whiff of “witchy shit” or “these fucking vampire [redacted, because I’m not about using homophobic slurs tossed around by a straight guy, so you can use your imagination],” his so-called job dedication dwindled until he finally lost interest all together.
Which sometimes worked in my favor.
Right now, though, I guessed he needed something to do.
His bone structure and beefy muscles screamed that he had, no doubt, killed a man, yet he was gentle when locking the cuffs around my slim wrists. Wouldn’t win my trust this late in the game. We weren’t friends.
Detective Monroe gave the handcuffs a tug before he steered me toward the unmarked car.
“Seraphina Mason.” I ducked my head against the harsh lights. “You’re under arrest for a whole lot of trespassing and desecration.” I heard the unspoken addendum to the latest charges against me: you’re a sick fuck, necromancer.
Maybe, from a certain point of view. But who was the sicko stealing corpses?
* * *
“We’re gonna try this again.”
Detective Monroe clicked a cheap pen with the edge of his thumb in an aggravating, rapid cadence. His thin layer of patience had cracked like black ice on the 290 from the moment we set foot in the precinct.
“And this time, Seraphina, you’re gonna tell me the truth. Because you know, and I know, that we’ve both had this conversation before. Ya realize how this works, right? Tell me the God’s honest truth, tell me everything, and I’ll see what I can do for ya.”
A ticking clock to our right had started to get on my nerves ten minutes ago. The room seemed to be freezing on purpose, the building’s A/C cranked up too high, not from any spirits who might call this dreary building their temporary resting place. Sweaty clothes stuck to my skin in uncomfortable places made my teeth chatter. It was like every other interrogation room I’d been hauled into—too bright with greyish walls I was sure had been white once, and the scent of old coffee grounds, pencil shavings, and far too much cologne permanently embedded in every available surface.
“You’re a goddamn smartass, but I think you’re a good kid,” he offered. I didn’t buy into his “Good Cop” shtick. Who was he calling kid, anyway? I was an adult woman, not his mischievous little niece. “We’ve got a real problem on our hands. And you need to start being honest with me, because we’ve had cops patrolling almost every cemetery in the area to track you down. Finally got the right one.”
I settled my chin on my closed fist. “Sounds like a waste of resources for one person, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t.” He cleared his throat, leaned back in the stiff metal chair until it squeaked, and continued to play with the pen. The gold band around his ring finger was new, I noticed. Who was the lucky bride? Her taste was questionable. “What were you doing in that cemetery tonight? You broke the padlock on that gate.”
“Same thing I just told you,” I insisted. “Same crap I keep trying to explain every time, but you don’t want to hear it. And that padlock was rusting away before I got there. I was going to replace it once I got my job done, if you’d left me alone. I’m not a total monster.”
I didn’t appreciate the look he threw at me that suggested the contrary.
“Yeah.” He laughed through his nose, staring at the pen between his fingers. “Your job.”
“Detective, we’ve got vampires and witch covens in this city, which I know you’re well aware of because I’m getting a severe case of déjà vu,” I reasoned, with a slight flex of my closed fist against the chilled metal tabletop. And also a headache. “Why is it so hard for you to accept that I practice necromancy? What I do…it doesn’t hurt anyone. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s not illegal—”
“If ya ask me,” he drawled, his top lip curling in a snarky frown, “it oughta be. I don’t fuckin’ like it. I’m not gonna pretend to like it. It is what it is.”
He hunched over the table again on his elbows and shuffled a pile of photographs from where they’d been stacked in a manila folder. Fanned across the table between us, they were undeniable proof of the graves that had been unceremoniously opened all over Buffalo and its suburbs.
“Look at this—look at all this shit. We’ve got calls from grieving families wondering what happened to the remains of their loved ones. You owe me an explanation for this.”
Coffins torn to shreds. Aged pine boxes reduced to splinters. Graves ripped open with an almost violent spray of dirt. Some of the dates on the headstones that I could decipher were much older than anyone I’d resurrected…Nate’s son Teddy being the single exception. Couldn’t the good detective use his critical thinking skills to figure out that these weren’t my handiwork?
No,I realized, my throat suddenly dry. Because they need you. You’re the scapegoat they’re going to pin everything on.
“I’ve seen them, okay?” I insisted. “I know what’s happening out there, or at least I’m…I’m making an attempt to. This?” I tapped my fingertips against the photographs. “This isn’t me. I’ve been telling you for, like, over a year. I don’t rob graves. I don’t have any reason to steal corpses, or bones, or whatever else you think I’m trying to get my greedy little hands on.”
I sighed, and a strand of hair fluttered in front of my eyes.
“Unfriendly attitudes being what they are around here,” I threw a pointed look at him across the table, “most people don’t find me until after their loved ones have already been buried, and I do what I have to. I don’t know who’s doing this—maybe it’s one of the covens, maybe it’s something else entirely, but it’s not me. I’m not that inconsiderate when it comes to the dead, despite your wildly incorrect takes on necromancy.”
Hadn’t noticed until it was too late that I’d started raising my voice at him, so I released a noisy breath to cool off my flaring temper. I pushed back from the edge of the table and folded my un-cuffed hands behind my head. “If you wanted to do something worth your time about whatever’s happening out there, you’d ask for my help instead of running around in circles trying to make me your suspect.”
“You trespassed on public property.”
“I’ll own that, and I’ll replace the lock. I’m a woman of my word.”
Amusement pulling at one corner of his mouth, he set down his pen and inched closer to me over the table. His breath smelled of stale coffee poorly masked by peppermint. “I’ve got ya on more desecration charges than I can count on one hand.”
“I’ll give you the contact information of the families I’ve done business with,” I reasoned, wondering how I could breach his thick skull and the stubbornness that fenced him in like barbed wire. “They’ll be happy to clear those charges right up. You might be able to talk to my clients, whose names are on their headstones. Not the ones in those pictures. I’m sure they’ll put in a good word for me now that they’re on this side of the grave again.”
“Damn it, Seraphina,” Detective Monroe groaned. “Don’t fuck with me! Last chance. Where the hell are you hiding the bodies?”
Perturbed by the accusation, I leaned forward to meet him at eye level. “I’m not a grave robber, you—”
“The hell you’re not—”
A forceful knock on the door interrupted our shouting match before it escalated to mutual rage strong enough to shake the walls. The tension broke and Detective Monroe deflated back into his chair, dragging a hand down his face. He glowered at the closed door behind me with bloodshot eyes.
“What?” he snapped. And then, quieter, yet no less pissed off, “Come in.”
I heard the door open with a soft click. “Detective Monroe? Dr. Rhys Lewandowski, I’m with the county ME office. I posted bail for Seraphina Mason.”
Rhys. My knight in plaid and a pair of Nikes.
I twisted around in my chair, the anger surging in my veins instantly calmed by the familiar sight waiting by the door. Rhys shuffled a couple of steps into the room, holding up the laminated ID badge that hung around his neck. He was a bit red-faced, the night’s humidity making a mess of his dark curls. Out of control frizz like Ellie’s during the peak of summer. More than that, his eyes were wide, same as when I’d evicted a ghost from his autopsy room before she’d strangled him.
Detective Monroe wasn’t pleased. He shoveled the photos into the envelope with an unsettling hostility. “We’re not done here.”
“All due respect to you, sir, but I need her,” Rhys asserted with more grace than this guy deserved. “It’s an emergency, a homicide—need her as a consult. It’s…” he hesitated, raking a hand through his frizzy curls, “it’s a strange one. Heard that’s not really your jurisdiction. Sir.”
“Lot of that lately.” I stood, and the leg of my chair scraped across polished linoleum tile. “Can I go now, or…?” I looked between the detective’s open mouth and Rhys’ perspiring, anxious form guarding the doorway.
“Fuck.” There was no winning this round for the detective, and I think he knew it. We would be meeting again, but I was a free woman.
Yet no closer to knowing who was responsible for all of the grotesque thievery.
He motioned toward the door with a gesture two steps shy of what other people might consider shockingly rude. I saw Rhys flinch. “Get out.”
“Ah, wait.” I lifted a cautious hand, only slightly accusatory. “I’m going to need my occult crap back. And my dagger.” Trying my best not to wither under the detective’s molten gaze, I pushed the chair into its rightful place and realized I’d forgotten my manners. “…Please and thank you.”