A Taste of... Last VENDETTA
The henhouse door dragged over a puddle of broken ice, scraping away bits of knife-sharp shards as Rosemary Crawford nudged it shut. Whatever noise had awakened her hadn’t come from the hens. They were sleeping soundly in their coop.
The iron latch came down snugly. Rosemary jiggled the door handle just to be sure. Waited. When no other sound but the January wind filled the night, she turned back to the house.
Only a few minutes earlier, Rosemary had been tucked into the rocking chair near her sleeping daughter’s crib. She’d thought the strange squeaking was just her toddler kicking the crib slats again. But Ellie Sue had been dead to the world, her chubby lips smacking a dream bottle.
Rosemary remembered Old Man Tripp had seen a fox sneaking into his henhouse not a week ago. She’d grabbed a shawl and flashlight before heading out the door to check.
But she couldn’t shake the unsettling sensation.
You’re acting like a paranoid old biddy. Stop it. You have decades to go before reaching “biddy” status. Stop it right now, before you drive your fool self crazy.
“I don’t know what Ma and Pa would say to me right now.” She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and picked her way over the frosted grass, wishing spring would arrive already. “God protect me.”
January in Maryland couldn’t pass by fast enough.
Freezing temperatures were an exercise in patience under the best of circumstances. The cloudy night made everything worse, setting her off-kilter. She couldn’t see the moon and stars like she normally could from the little homestead, and the air simply felt…well, wrong.
She smacked the side of her flashlight when it flickered not even halfway across the yard. “Just get me to the house, and I’ll change your batteries, you stupid thing.”
The screen door ahead of her screeched, and she nearly stumbled from surprise. A silhouette appeared on the back porch and brought her up short.
A second later, Rosemary’s logic kicked in. “Chet, you scared the wonder outta…” Her words broke off as she shined the light up onto the porch in full.
It wasn’t Chet.
Who is it?
Rosemary took another step forward, wishing more than ever for stars and moonlight. With only the little lamp above the door casting the silhouette and her dim flashlight offering scant illumination, the shadows disfigured her visitor’s face. Halloween-ish, at best, whoever this person was. Rosemary felt sure she’d seen them in town, though. The set of the shoulders, the stance, and the step all struck her as familiar.
“Do I know you?”
“Oh, for sure you do, Rosemary. For sure you do.”
The person’s voice was like a rasp across the blade of a shovel—odd, ominous, and strangely masculine in nature.
With more bravado than she felt, Rosemary stepped forward. “It’s late, and I need to be getting inside.”
“Had to finally take care of something, Rosemary, that’s all. How are you doing?”
She shook off the chill raising the hairs on the back of her neck and forced a laugh, thinking she might have recognized the voice at last. She opened her mouth to reply but froze with the words on her tongue.
Hanging from her visitor’s hand was an axe…a bloody axe.
And now, watching the axe wielder descend the sagging steps, coat and overalls covered in blood, face obscured by an ill-fitting hat, Rosemary still wasn’t certain of their identity or even their gender.
Or whose blood it was on that axe.
A flash of her daughter—sleeping, dreaming of a warm bottle of milk—shot through Rosemary’s mind. She’d stepped out of Ellie Sue’s room five minutes ago. That couldn’t be Ellie Sue’s blood.
It had to be—
The image was like a nightmare. Yet the axe-wielding figure seemed calm or under some kind of trance.
The ghoulish visitor reached the bottom of the stairs. Heavy, clipped steps crunched through the frosted grass, conveying every bit of confidence that had long since drained from Rosemary’s heart.
“What in the name—”
“Shhh, Rosemary. Don’t say anything, all right? I mean, you already know how to stay silent, don’t you?”
“What have you done? Tell me what you’ve done.” The words took a ghostly shape as her hot breath met the icy air.
The unwelcome visitor inched another step in her direction.
“I took care of that abomination of a man, is all. Wiped him clean from the planet.”
The person—the murderer, she knew now—swung the axe by their side, nonchalant, as they hummed a hymn.
“You killed Chet?” The amount of blood told the truth. Chet, the father of her child, was gone. She couldn’t move or open her mouth to scream. She stood as rooted as the trees in the yard, witnessing evil approach her.
“Where’s Ellie Sue? If you laid one finger on her, I swear…”
They came closer, and Rosemary got a waft of her now-dead husband’s tart, acidic blood. She gagged.
“You think I’d kill an innocent child? You think I’d hurt an innocent baby in her crib? You think I could do that?” Rage filled the axe wielder’s voice, and the metallic scraping of the words now came like ice blown straight into Rosemary’s ears.
She stumbled back and slipped on the icy ground. Her butt crashed onto the frosted grass. Her heart pounded.
“Just tell me you didn’t hurt her,” she whispered, choking on tears.
“A baby? You think I’m some kind of monster? How dare you! Rosemary Crawford, the Lord will judge you for this and all your sins.”
The accusation stung, but in that moment, Rosemary had no voice, no power to defend herself. She thought only of Ellie Sue’s safety.
Chet is gone. He’s dead. I’m the only one standing between a murderer and Ellie Sue. Dear God, give me strength. Please, give me courage.
Rosemary lurched to her feet, charging her husband’s killer. She thrust her hands forward and shouted as the axe rose.
“I haven’t committed any sins!”
The axe fell in a wide arc, shaving Rosemary’s right shoulder. The dull ache of the hit was quickly replaced by searing agony. Hot blood cascaded down her arm. She staggered sideways, falling forward, but scrambled to her feet to get away.
She turned, facing her attacker, who took steady steps in her direction, lifting the bloodied axe again. Its blade now dripped with her and Chet’s blood together.
As in life, so in death. If this is to be my time, I will join my husband in God’s kingdom, knowing I did everything I could to protect our child.
“Silence in the face of evil is a sin.”
Rosemary recognized the voice. “Then I’m not the only guilty one here.”
Clutching her injured arm, feeling light-headed from fear and the loss of blood, Rosemary stepped toward her attacker, ready to meet her fate.
“You’ll be orphaning an innocent child.” Maybe there was still some understanding behind those shadowed eyes. “Ellie Sue needs her mother.”
For half a breath, Rosemary thought this tactic had worked.
The blade of the axe trembled, raised over the killer’s head.
“Better an orphan than raised by sinners.”
Rosemary bristled at the accusation. She staggered, half numb from the cold. “Get out of my way. I need to see my daughter!”
Her visitor sneered, their face a grotesque mask, covered in spatters of blood.
Rosemary rushed forward, thinking she could shove the lunatic aside, get to Ellie Sue’s room, and lock the door. She’d just have to grab the phone in the hallway on her way so she could call the sheriff.
She could make it.
But when she met her attacker’s eyes, Rosemary realized how wrong she was.
The axe came down in a violent chop, cleaving into Rosemary’s neck. Blood and prayers abandoned her as the blade wrenched free from her flesh and came down a second and final time.
Not a sound slipped from Rosemary’s mouth as she toppled sideways onto the dark, frost-coated earth, her final resting place.
Special Agent Emma Last willed her arms to stop trembling. But they seemed to have adopted a no-can-do attitude.
Her right palm was high in the air, her fingers splayed open as if she were drowning and reaching for help. Its desperate shadow shivered on the floor ahead of her. The grip her left hand had around her ankle might leave a bruise at this point. She felt ridiculous.
What the hell made me think yoga was a good idea?
“I can’t even blame it on vodka.” She muttered the comment to herself, but a nearby redhead giggled. Emma smiled.
At least someone thinks I’m funny.
Triangle pose appeared relatively easy until she’d attempted the maneuver herself. Now she knew she had all the flexibility of a stick pretzel.
There was no doubt in her mind that the handsome instructor, tilted over like a teapot at the front of the room, had been trying not to laugh since she’d begun.
“Remember, you’re opening the chest and shoulders.” Oren spread his arms, breathing deeply. His muscles were lean and long, seeming to reach almost to the ceiling. He did not tremble at all. His eyes were also set on Emma.
“Make sure you’re keeping your arms in a single, straight line, floor to ceiling.” He paused, watching her with a quirked lip. She hated him a little bit but hated herself more for wanting to smile back. “If you feel you might topple, try adjusting the line of your feet to give yourself a bit more of a base.”
If I adjust my feet in this pose, I’ll start a domino train and knock us all down.
That was an exaggeration but not by much. Emma couldn’t move. With her legs spread and her body strained into a geometric attempt at nirvana, she suspected she’d fall forward and break her nose if she budged a centimeter in any direction—or she’d fall over backward and break her tailbone. Her only alternative was to straight-up give up.
Emma Last does not give up.
Oren called for a transition, a vinyasa, ending in mountain pose—a simple standing position that Emma could actually handle.
Emma caught her breath during the brief interlude of standing like a real, live, normal human.
Then Oren lost all reason as he suggested the class try a headstand.
Covered in sweat, she ignored her shaking body in favor of studying her new instructor’s inverted move, appreciating his physique. The man looked just as good upside down, maybe even better.
Apparently, Oren’s figure and mad moves were a major draw at five thirty in the morning. Of the twenty attendees, Emma was the only beginner. The only one not balancing on her head, though she tried.
She might as well have had a spotlight shining on her ineptitude, but it was still no reason to quit.
By the time Emma twisted her body into the class’s final pose, a manageable spinal twist on each side, the instructor caught her eye and nodded encouragement.
Message received. I’ll hold the pose.
And she did, finally collapsing into Savasana, final resting pose.
When Emma sat up on her mat, half the other attendees were smiling and waving goodbye. The other half had surrounded Oren. She took a moment to flop back on her mat and close her eyes for another minute.
When she opened them, Oren Werling, the ridiculously good-looking instructor, stood directly above her in his loose yoga pants and overstretched, V-necked t-shirt. He’d somehow extricated himself from the throng of students.
“I’m Oren.” He reached a hand down and pulled her to her feet. “And you are…?”
“Emma Last.” She tightened her ponytail, suddenly self-conscious. “Thank you for the class. I feel like a clumsy chicken compared to your other students, but I guess that’s what being a beginner is all about, huh?”
He chuckled, his blue eyes lighting up with amusement. “This is the beginners’ class, so you’re in good company. And I wouldn’t call you clumsy or a chicken.”
Easy there, Emma girl. He doesn’t think you’re a chicken. That’s a good thing, right?
“So tell me, Emma Last. What got you interested in yoga?”
Well, you see, Oren, I’m trying to gain control over my interactions with dead people.
Nope, that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.
Emma blurted out the most obvious thing she could think of that wasn’t entirely a lie. “Uh, career stress?”
“And what is your career, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m a special agent for the FBI.”
One of Oren’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. His blue eyes were shockingly bright and inquisitive. “Seriously?”
Heat flowed to Emma’s cheeks. One of these days, someone won’t be surprised. Maybe.
“It’s true. I’ve been with the D.C. office for nearly two years now.”
“Color me intrigued. I’d love to hear more, but I’m guessing that’s classified.”
A laugh escaped her throat—or had it been closer to a giggle?—and she shook her head, smoothing down her shirt over her hips. “We can talk while I put my shoes on. I’m still technically on my own time, so you don’t need top-secret clearance to talk to me.”
Oren’s laugh was deliciously deep as he followed her over to the bench along the room’s edge. “In all seriousness, I’m glad you found your way here. Yoga can be a fantastic way to gain self-mastery and manage stress. If you give the process some time, I believe you’ll be pleased with the results.”
She reached for her tennis shoes and sat back down, putting them on. “There’ve been a lot of changes around my office…and my life. And I’ve been meaning to try yoga for a while, so here I am. I may stand out, but I’ll stick with it.”
Lean and graceful, Oren folded himself down onto the floor mat a few steps from Emma. “Change is always difficult. And you may not have asked for it, but if you greet change as if you have, you can affect the transition and maybe gain some peace from your new circumstances.”
Emma tightened her shoelaces, considering his words. “So you’re essentially saying I should loosen up and be more open to change?” She’d meant the comment as a joke, but Oren seemed to see past the humor.
“Not at all. You seem very open. That’s important for both the practice of yoga and life, so ‘loosening up’ wasn’t what I had in mind. You did better keeping up with this crew than I would’ve expected of any beginner.”
The compliment sent a flush of warmth through her chest. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome. I’m only saying that change happens. And a shift in circumstances of any kind is rarely comfortable. But if you actually work to choose the change as if you’ve asked for it rather than simply trying to accept what’s happened, you may regain a sense of control.” Oren stood in one fluid movement. “Do you want to stay for the next class? It’s only a twenty-minute wait, and I promise to let you rest in between.”
The sheen of sweat over Emma’s chest and back grew chilly. A movement caught her attention at the other end of the studio. As she rose from the floor, she glanced past Oren…and did her best not to freeze. The last thing she wanted was for her new yoga instructor to think she was losing her mind.
An elderly man squatted in the corner of the studio. He seemed angry, his white eyes boring into her with an aggression that made her take a step back. As she prepared to turn away, the ghost actually growled at her.
The feeling’s mutual, mister.
She could do without that old man—and every other ghost—just fine. If given the option.
Trying to refocus on the living man in front of her, Emma shook her head and picked up her coat. It was time to go. “I’m afraid not. I’ve got to get going, or I’ll be late.”
“But I’ll see you again?”
The ghost dropped into a backbend. “Let’s hope not. The Other doesn’t want you, and I don’t want you either. You’re distracting my trainer.”
Emma kept her eyes steady on Oren. No way was she going to look like a lunatic in front of him. She forced a wide grin and aimed her next comment at both Oren and the dead man. “You couldn’t keep me away. I’ll be back.”
“Ack-ugh.” The ghost made choking sounds. “You’re not good enough for him.”
Oren, blissfully unaware of the heckling behind him, reached out and shook her hand. “It’s a deal, and I’ll look forward to it.” With one last grin, he turned away and headed toward the lobby.
Emma allowed herself to watch him go.
What she’d said had been true. She had to get showered and head to work, to a morning riddled with paperwork since they’d wrapped up the Ruby Red Spectacle Circus case. But she also didn’t want to wait around and allow the old yoga specter another opportunity to chitchat.
As Emma made the brisk walk to her apartment, her mind skirted toward what the circus’s fortune teller had told her about a wolf, but she refused to consider Esther’s exact words.
“The path to the wolf lies covered in innocent blood.”
Whatever that meant, Emma was tired of being intimidated and threatened by the dead.
She’d been pestered by ghosts since becoming a special agent. First, a victim in Connecticut, Missy, appeared out of nowhere, warning Emma about “them” and saying, “They don’t like you.” Then Emma’s friend and colleague, Miguel, offered cryptic warnings after being betrayed and murdered by his own team member. Two of her neighbors who recently passed had decided to stick around. One, Mrs. Kellerly, liked to bust into Emma’s morning routine and advise her on how to make coffee. The other, Madeline Luse, would wave to Emma from across the courtyard, where she hovered on her family’s balcony, watching her husband and their children eat dinner.
Emma had encountered no fewer than three gruesome remnants of the murder victims in her last case, each of them no more helpful than a t-shirt that read, I went to the circus, and all it got me was dead.
It wasn’t until she and her team had caught the killer that any of the ghosts actually spoke to her, offering confirmation for what she’d already learned.
Emma was exhausted by white-eyed dead people taking her by surprise, speaking in riddles, and generally making her life more of a horror show than it was to begin with. She’d joined the Bureau’s Violent Crimes Unit to stop people who committed such crimes and to bring closure to any survivors.
Butting heads with ghosts wasn’t supposed to be part of the deal. None of them had anything better to do than threaten and confuse her or—alternately—offer time-sucking small talk.
For the moment, a hot shower sounded positively magnificent.