Peak of the Devil

ONE
Afterward, whenever I told the story, everyone asked why I let him in the house.
It was Beowulf’s fault, really. He loved Phineas from the first, and I never had any reason to doubt Wulf’s judgment before.
We were hurrying back from our morning walk, even though hurrying wasn’t usually Wulf’s thing, because some thunder had just cracked us a warning. Phineas was sitting on the porch steps of my little craftsman bungalow. I distinctly remember that it was the second step, of three. Far up enough to stay dry when the inevitable downpour came, but not so far as to be presumptuous.
Wulf saw him first and howled, which is what bloodhounds do instead of barking. And it was definitely his greeting, happy-to-see-you howl. Plus he wagged his tail. See what I’m saying? I was tricked.
In that position Phineas was all elbows and knees, topped with a mop of too-long cinnamon-colored curls, and I knew before he stood up that he’d be tall. He was broad-shouldered, and combined with his height that might have made him feel threatening. But there was something dorky and even endearing about the expensive, carefully polished shoes he wore with his khaki shorts, like a little boy dressed for church. And when he gave me that one-sided smile that I would shortly decide was smug, but at the time seemed merely cheerful, I immediately categorized him as harmless.
He asked whether I was Lydia Trinket. I allowed that I was. I was holding two bags of dog poop in my right hand, so I extended my left to shake instead. This was a bummer, because it exposed the ugly stump of my ring finger, which was my own fault, because I’d bitten it off myself nearly a year before. I can’t exactly say the devil made me do it, but Helen Turner, with her evil mind tricks, was pretty darn close.
Phineas shook my hand without recoiling from the gross half finger. Another mark in his favor.
“I’m Phineas—” he started, then was interrupted by his own laugh. Beowulf was slobbering all over his hand, wagging his tail like crazy. I’d never seen him respond so favorably to a strange man.
“Wulf.” I tugged at the leash.
“He’s fine.” Phineas squatted down and put one hand on either side of Wulf’s head, scratching his ears, their noses within inches of each other. “Bloodhound, huh? Useful dogs.”
Not beautiful dogs, or sweet dogs, or excessively drooly dogs. Useful dogs. I did notice the strange choice of words, but I should have noticed it a lot harder. There are only a few kinds of people to whom bloodhounds are really useful, and they’re distinguished from one another only on the basis of what they hunt. I didn’t look like the kind of hunter who goes out shooting deer on weekends, and with his manicured nails and well-tended shoes, neither did Phineas.
When he straightened back up again he said, “Sorry, where was I?”
“You were Phineas.”
He smiled again, higher on the left side than the right. “Right. Phineas Basker. Cyrus Basker was my third cousin. Or is it first cousin thrice removed? I can never remember. We were related, anyway.”
I stared at him but managed to stop myself from blurting, You’re one of the asshole cousins? But you’re so lovely! Instead I asked, “What can I do for you, Mr. Basker?”
Before I was halfway through the question, I’d already made up my mind what I’d say next. Sure, he was a stranger, but Wulf said he was okay. Plus it seemed very unlikely that a serial killer-rapist would try to gain access by bringing up Cyrus, of all people.
Even the weather was on his side: as if to nudge me along, thunder crashed again.
“Or would you prefer to discuss it inside? My porch roof leaks, I’m afraid.”
So that’s how someone who knows better, or ought to, invites a strange man into her house.
Phineas stood in my kitchen, very loosely guarded by Wulf, while I disposed of the dog poop in the trash can out back, washed my hands, and started making coffee.
“I was sure I had the right Lydia Trinket when I found your website,” he said. “You’ve got some very interesting discussions going on, by the way. I particularly liked your advice to the guy with three ghosts trying to outdo one another.”
“Thank you. It pays the bills.”
Well, some of them, anyway. Freelance web design, most of it learned while building my own site, took care of what Help for the Haunted couldn’t. I’d bought maybe just a tad more house than I could afford, but I wasn’t a bit sorry. I’d never lived alone before, except for one brief stretch, less than a year, before I got married. I thought I would be lonely. And I was at first, mainly because I missed Warren so much my face was always puffy, either from crying or trying not to cry. You don’t spend years as Aunt Mom without the lines between aunt and mom blurring considerably. But I grew to love the quiet, the freedom. Not to mention never finding the switchel pitcher in the fridge with barely a swallow left in it, or somebody else’s breakfast dishes in the sink, unrinsed, with gross bits of dried-up cereal stuck to them.
“My email address is there on the site,” I added. My street address, on the other hand, was not. But I guessed I probably wasn’t that hard to track down, if a person knew what he was doing.
“I know,” said Phineas. “And I’m sorry for dropping in like this. What I want to talk about is kind of sensitive. I didn’t want to send files over email.”
“Sounds mysterious.”
“It’s a mystery to me, that’s for sure. My Uncle Edgar suggested I contact you to see if you could help. I think you talked to him about some books about a year or so ago?”
“I did. He couldn’t find them. Said his sister sold them, I think, something like that.”
“Well, his sister is my mother. I have them. And I need your help figuring a few things out.”
First my dog, then Cyrus’s books. Credit where it’s due, Phineas sure knew which buttons to press. I’d have bitten off another finger for a look at those books, and I can tell you, that hurts like a bitch. Phineas wasn’t carrying anything that looked like a book bag, though.
“But you didn’t bring them?” I asked.
He pulled a flash drive out of his pocket and held it up. “I did in a way. They’re a bit delicate to just carry around. Mind if I use your computer?”
I led him into my office, Beowulf at our heels. While I booted up my computer, Phineas looked around at my bookshelves. I distinctly heard a soft “Whoa.”
I turned around, a little self-conscious, assuming he was looking at the Jane Eyre book case. But he wasn’t. He was looking at the taller one, the one crammed with books on every shelf but the second highest, where the switchel ring sat, surrounded by various candle holders and a little porcelain Newfoundland dog.
“Is that it?” Phineas took a step toward the shelf, then hesitated ever-so-politely, with one hand halfway toward the canteen. “May I?”
“Go ahead. Just be careful. It won’t break, but the stuff on either side of it will.”
It maybe wasn’t the very stupidest thing I said that day, but it was for sure in the top five.
Phineas picked up the switchel ring and with one sudden, violent movement, threw it against my hardwood floor and shattered it.
I would have punched him, but I didn’t have a chance. For a split second I was too dumbfounded. That switchel ring had been dropped, flung, pushed, and blown around dozens of times over the years, and it never got so much as a chip. We assumed it was enchanted so as to be unbreakable. Apparently we were wrong. But that split second was all I had to contemplate this mystery.
Spirit after spirit started flying from the canteen, crying out in surprise, laughing in delight, a few screaming in pain. Most of them disappeared as fast as they came, pulled to the place they were anchored to. But a couple of the stronger ones stuck around as long as they could, mocking and insulting me because they’d escaped, or berating me because they’d been thrown out, depending on how much they’d enjoyed their stay in the netherworld. Mostly, it was the mocking and insulting. Wulf went into a frenzy, howling and nipping at their heels, pushing them along, more like a herding dog than a hound.
But there was one spirit who wanted to do more than mock and insult, and even Wulf couldn’t dispense with her so easily. Megan McGibbons hurled herself at me, a whirling, nebulous mess of floppy pigtails and long nails. Last time I’d seen her, she was being chased off by Cyrus. I had hoped he killed her. But I guessed her coming out of the canteen meant she’d killed him instead.
I had no time to dissect my complicated feelings on that matter, any more than I did to punch Phineas or wonder about the canteen, because everything in my office started flying at my head at once.
Why did I have to have so many books? They were everywhere. I couldn’t swat them all away, so I ended up curling my arms around my head to protect it. Until I heard Wulf yelp somewhere off to my left. You can’t be messing with my dog.
Head down, I opened my eyes and looked around the floor until I found him. He wasn’t going after Megan anymore. Instead he was cowering and shaking in the corner, while two ballpoint pens and the tip of my pewter model of Big Ben stabbed into his ear, snout, and neck, respectively. Megan liked sharp objects, and I guessed these were the sharpest she could find. I congratulated myself on throwing away the hideous, faux jeweled letter opener my mother gave me two birthdays ago. (Regifted, no doubt. Who opens letters anymore?)
But what Megan did have to work with was damaging enough. Wulf yiped in pain. His ear was dripping blood. I half ran, half slid the rest of the way to him, and batted the things away. The pen in his ear had to be pulled pretty hard before it came out.
One of the pens went for my eyeball next, and I ducked just in time. Beowulf growled and nipped at it, his courage restored by his instinct to protect me.
Then without warning, Big Ben dropped to the floor. All the books that had been whirling around the room in a paper tornado did the same. The pens fell last, one of them smeared with Wulf’s blood. And Megan was gone.
Phineas, or whoever he really was, was not gone. He stood near the doorway at the edge of the wreckage that had been my office, hands in his pockets, too-long hair completely unmussed. Calm as you please.
“What the motherfucking fuck?” I yelled at him.
It didn’t seem to rattle him. He stepped forward and picked a couple of books up off the floor.
“When you’ve calmed down, I have some questions for you.” He stacked the books back on the (wrong) shelf.
“The hell you do! And I won’t be calm for quite some time! Why exactly did you just smash my canteen? How did you just smash my canteen?”
My canteen,” Phineas said. “There were souls trapped in it. That’s not what it was intended for, and it’s against the natural order. I broke it for their good and for yours.”
“Yeah? You see it doing much good so far?”
As I said it, I was struck by just how much not-good it might be doing: all those apparitions, many of them dangerous, unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Megan, who had come right out of the canteen stabbing. I wasn’t sure what she would do to whoever lived in her house when she got there, but I bet it involved something pointy.
I had no time to lose. I bent down to check my computer. Thankfully, it was sheltered under the desk and hadn’t been broken. I stood back up and righted my monitor, which had fallen over. One corner was cracked, but it still worked. I pushed the other debris, including the pieces of the switchel ring, off my desk and yanked the keyboard toward me.
“And who made you the natural order police?” I snapped at Phineas. “Who are you? I’m assuming you’re not really Cyrus’s cousin.”
“No, but I kind of am the natural order police. Sort of.”
I glanced up at him. He was standing pretty close to me, still picking up books, as if that was the kind of help I needed. And when he looked back at me I knew, although I couldn’t have said why. Something about his skin, I think, the glow of it, and the color of his eyes. They were meant to be hazel, and would have been, from a distance, but up close they were too yellow.
“You’re not human,” I said.
He ducked his head and smiled, almost sheepish. “No.”
Well, that explained my initial assessment of him as handsome. (An opinion I obviously no longer held.) There are a lot of women who find unavailable men attractive, but I took it to a whole different level. The last one had been a dead guy. This one was not, apparently, even a guy.
“Fuck, I do not have time for this.” I turned away from him and found my phone in the corner, half buried under my specially bound 1912 Jane Eyre, which now had a long gash across the buttery leather cover.
I stopped to scratch Wulf’s neck as I retrieved the phone. He licked my hand and pawed at me. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “You’re fine. We’ll bandage that ear in a little bit, okay?”
I looked back at my computer screen. My brother Nat and I had been hired by the Gori family to banish Megan McGibbons almost ten years ago. I knew the odds were against them still having the same phone numbers, but I had to start somewhere.
I got my first lucky break of the day: Tara Gori’s cell phone number hadn’t changed. But she didn’t own the house on Willow Pond Lane anymore. I asked if she could get me the number of the people who bought it from her. She said she thought one of her old neighbors might have it.
“Can you find out and call me back?” I asked. “I’m sorry to bother you with this, but it’s urgent.”
“What’s going on?” Tara asked. “Megan didn’t have a sister, did she?”
“No, but I’m afraid Megan has come back.”
That was all she needed to hear. Megan had left quite an impression on her when she lived in that house—on one occasion literally, with a kitchen knife. She said she’d make some calls right away, and hung up.
I looked back at Phineas. He was kneeling beside Wulf, doing something to his ear. “Do you have any rosemary paste?” he asked.
“Get away from my dog, you asshole. Do something useful.”
“Such as?”
Such as? What are you going to do about all these ghosts you just let loose?”
He shrugged one shoulder, the left, the same side he smiled on. “Nothing. Most of them will move on of their own accord.”
“And what about the rest? What about the last one that was in here, stabbing Wulf with British landmarks?”
“They’re really not my problem.” His eyes were placid, indifferent, as he stood back up.
“You are a huge asshole!”
A small smile, quickly suppressed, then he reached back down to pat Wulf (whose ear, I noted, was not bleeding anymore). “Do you have any idea where Cyrus got the canteen?”
“No.” I didn’t mean it as an answer to his question, although that was also no. “No, we are not doing this. Get out of my house, right now. If you’re not going to help me, you’re sure as hell not going to slow me down.”
Phineas nodded. “Maybe that’s best.”
I waved him out of the office. He could find his own way from there. Not much point in keeping an eye on him now, what was he going to do, break my valuables?
“I’ll be back another time,” he said as he walked out.
“The hell you will!” I shouted after him.
The front door opened. Over the sound of the rain, before it closed again, I could almost swear I heard a chuckle.
Fucking Phineas.

 

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