Galen’s truck ambled along in the dark as he drove out of town. Due to his height it had been modified to accommodate his limitations. The gas and brakes were controlled by hand much like one would for a motorcycle. Thomas felt it was somewhat complicated with a wheel for steering, but at least cruise control simplified things. It was only a fifteen minute drive going the speed limit, but it felt like forever to him. No one spoke as they drove by the numerous trees. Thomas welcomed the change from the endless hot dirt and rocks. After a few more turns, Lynnette’s farm style house came into view.
“We’re too late,” Galen said.
The driveway was filled with an ambulance, the county sheriff’s car, and a handful of vehicles belonging to who Thomas guessed could only be busy bodies and looky-loos. Great, by tomorrow everyone and their brother in the four surrounding towns will know what happened here.
“Park in the grass if you have to,” Thomas said.
Galen shimmied up pass the cars, ignoring the stares and nodded to the sheriff as he parked in the grass. Thomas popped open the door and quickly jumped out, not waiting for anyone as he walked toward the sheriff.
“Where is Aunt Lynnie?” he said, “What happened?”
“Hang on, son,” the sheriff said. He held up his hands in an effort to get him to slow down. “We answered a call that your aunt was found lying on the floor and unresponsive. We’re sorry son, but there was nothing we could do.”
“Nothing you could do?” Thomas said.
Rhae tried to comfort him by placing her hands on his shoulders. The flashing lights of the sheriff’s car and the ambulance was disorienting. He knew people were talking. He could see their lips moving, but there was no sound beyond the ringing of his ears. The ground didn’t even feel stable. Nothing made sense. Yes, she was old. Yes, she could be mean. But she was all the family he had. Was he really all alone now?
“Take easy there, son,” the sheriff said, “Get me a paramedic over here.”
Thomas shook his head and pushed everyone away. “I’m fine. I’m fine,” he said. “Who made the call?”
“That lady over there,” the sheriff said. He thumbed over his shoulder in the direction of the ambulance. “Seems really shook up and insists her death isn’t natural. But there’s no wounds and no signs of forced entry. She’s talking to Detective Ryker right now. Dead ringer for Lynnette isn’t she?”
He scanned the area around the ambulance, seeking the woman mentioned. Not sure what he would find because nobody looked like Lynnette. Why would the sheriff say that? Then she turned and met his gaze. Her face was angry and for a moment, she did look just like Lynnette. The anger melted away as her eyes widened in recognition. Her eyes were just like his, just like Lynnette’s, and oddly just like the white woman’s. She pulled her hands out of the pockets of her black leather jacket and tucked her white hair behind her ear, fighting back tears. Lynnette never cried. This woman was softer, younger, and appeared somehow warmer. Before realizing it, he was running to her. The tears ran freely now from both of them. She hugged him just as tightly as he hugged her.
And though it was just a trembling whisper, Thomas still heard it. “My baby.”
Rhae and Galen stood by, making sure anyone around didn’t come too close.
“Look at you,” she said. She stood back, her hands planted on his shoulders. “So much to talk about, but now is not the time. There is danger and something is not right. You must believe me. You have to see this.”
She led him by the hand towards the house, ignoring everyone. The door she headed for Thomas saw was the door for the shed Lynnette had converted into an office for her business.
“Ma’am,” Detective Ryker said. He caught up to them from behind. “Miss Celeste Whitaker.”
Celeste spun around and glared at him. There again Thomas saw the hint of Lynnette’s icy countenance. The detective took a step back and fumbled with his notepad. He was a big man – the kind you’d call a bruiser. Yet here he was meekly smoothing his thick black moustache. Thomas needed to figure out this trick. How did the Whitaker women do that?
“Thomas needs to see his aunt before you people take her away,” Celeste asked. “Or is that too much to ask from you heartless people?”
“Alright,” he said. Tucking his notepad away he walked past them to the door. “Come on.”
“Be brave,” Celeste said and wrapped an arm around Thomas’ shoulders.
Thomas entered the office and nodded to the medical examiner. The aged man stood and shook his head.
“Far as I can tell at this point, it’s from old age. Heart failure most likely,” he said. “She must have been what, late eighties by now?”
Celeste and Thomas shrugged. Lynnette never celebrated birthdays and never spoke of her age. Far as he knew, she never saw a doctor either. He still noticed the dark purple glow floating up from her skin. Obviously the medical examiner couldn’t see it.
“I’m still required to perform an autopsy unless you wish to file an objection?”
“No objections,” Thomas said. His eyes never left his aunt.
“An autopsy will be fine,” Celeste said.
The medical examiner nodded. “I’ll let you know what I find, if anything,” he said, “I’ll just stand over here. I assume you wish to say your goodbyes?”
Thomas glanced up at the man but was lost for words. This was really goodbye?
“Yes, thank you.”
The man smiled softly and stood by the door. “I’m sorry I can’t leave the room. You understand.”
Celeste patted him on the shoulder. “It’s perfectly fine.”
Detective Ryker entered the office but didn’t meet Celeste’s evil eye. She squared her shoulders and swung around on her heel. Stopping two feet away from Lynnette’s body, she knelt down. Thomas tried to ignore the detective’s scrutiny as he knelt down next to Celeste. His aunt’s flesh was also transparent like the body of their middle man. Why was she attacked? How did that gentleman priest know her?
“Can you see it?” Celeste said.
Her voice was barely a whisper but the detective heard and quickly stepped over to the body.
“See what?” he said.
“I can see it,” Thomas said.
Celeste glanced over her shoulder to speak to the medical examiner. “Have they finished taking photos in here?”
“Oh? Yes,” the man said, “They have gotten all the photos they need.”
“May I hold her hand? For last rites?”
“Of course,” he said.
Gingerly Celeste picked up Lynnette’s papery hand into hers. She covered it with her other hand. Thomas fully expected his aunt to disintegrate into dust. The body seemed so fragile and delicate. Celeste bent her head down to rest her forehead upon her hand covering Lynnette’s hand. She remained that way for a minute, murmuring a soft prayer. With the prayer complete, Celeste reverently placed Lynnette’s hand on her chest and then place her other hand over it. She then resumed praying. Thomas noted the detective’s glower and decided to mimic Celeste’s pose, hoping he would go away. He didn’t. When Celeste finally rose, Thomas stood up with her and found Ryker waiting for them.
“What do you see?” Ryker said.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Thomas said.
Celeste left without them and the detective didn’t stop them. The medical examiner paid them no mind as he set to the task of placing Lynnette into a body bag. It was almost time to ship her to the morgue. Thomas tried not to think about that. He tried to focus on the detective and what this guy was fishing for.
“Relax, it’s fine.” Celeste’s voice said in his mind.
The detective leaned down a bit towards Thomas. “What do you see?” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of weird shit, so try me.”
Thomas shrugged. “Purple light and transparent flesh.”
The medical examiner barely paused as he zipped the bag.
“So you’re saying something unnatural did this to your aunt?”
“I’m saying people’s bodies don’t normally do that when they die,” Thomas said. “For all I know it could be glow in the dark paint, but she never was a painter.”
“Hey you,” Ryker said.
“Yes?” the medical examiner stood up from the bagged body.
“Did you see a glowing light from the body?”
Puzzled, the man turned as though to unzip the bag. “No, I didn’t. I can look again if you’d like.”
“No that’s fine. Check for it during autopsy,” Ryker said.
“I will,” the man said. Perplexed, he shuffled out of the office.
When the door shut behind the medical examiner, Ryker said, “You’re not the only one that can see it.”
The next two weeks blurred by for Thomas. It came as no surprise that the autopsy found nothing. Detective Ryker stopped by a few times to question him, hoping to learn more about the strange purple aura and transparent flesh. Since Ryker knew about the true nature of Lynnette’s and Galen’s businesses, Thomas told Ryker how they were sent to Parsiyawa to pick up a package for her. He told them about the creatures they fought there, what happened to their middle man, and how Galen identified the creatures as Soul Eaters.
When Ryker asked about the package, Thomas only told him that the middle man claimed he didn’t have it even as they tried to beat it out of him. As tired and numb as he was, Thomas still found it odd that the detective feigned a lack of interest concerning the package when with everything else he questioned him with intensity. It was just a random, casual question as he was leaving from his last visit. Like it was an after thought.
“So you have no idea what was in the package?” he said.
“No,” Thomas said, “Lynnette always required her packages to be wrapped in a self sealing container. The seal is her magical design and construct that can only be opened by her. So once sealed it doesn’t matter who has it, they can’t open it anyway.”
“That’s one way to keep nosy people out,” he said. “Well if you need me for anything, give me a call. You have my number.”
That was four days ago. Now he rode in the back of Celeste’s sedan with Rhae toward the cemetery. Galen drove his truck not far behind them. Overcast and threatening to rain, the sky matched Thomas’ dreary mood. For years he wished to be free from her and be out on his own. He didn’t want it to be like this. Did those things catch her by surprise? Was it quick and painless or did they torment her? He didn’t see signs of a struggle in the office. Over and over he told himself that her death was swift. She didn’t suffer. Yet the twisted face of their nameless middle man haunted him. Plaguing his dreams, it robbed him of sleep. Thomas wanted nothing more than to crawl in a hole and forget about the world right now.
“What’s wrong?” Celeste said in his mind.
“Can’t you read my mind?“
“I can’t probe a mind if that’s what you’re asking,” she said, “I can only send and receive thoughts. Seems you share this gift.“
Thomas sighed and leaned his head against the car window. Closing his eyes he sent her thoughts of the middle man, Lynnette, and the Soul Eater brood. He didn’t know how else to tell her.
“Wait, that woman with them,” Celeste said. The car veered towards the ditch a little but she quickly corrected it.
“Whoa,” Rhae said, “What’s wrong?”
“Thomas,” Celeste said, “show me that white woman again.”
He closed his eyes and thought hard of when she held Rhae captive. It wasn’t hard to recall the details of that moment.
“That’s enough,” Celeste said. She wiped away tears delicately with a finger. “You have to stop her Thomas.”
Thomas straightened himself up in his seat. “Why me?”
“Because I can’t,” she said, “and if you don’t those things will keep coming. More people are going to die Thomas.”
“I don’t know how to even kill those things,” Thomas said. He ran his hand through his hair.
“You’re smart,” Rhae said. She squeezed his knee. “You’ll figure it out and then we’ll kick some ass.”
Celeste pulled into the cemetery and stopped behind the hearse. This was it. This was their final farewell. Thomas struggled to hold himself together as he got out of the car. The will specifically stated that he was not to be a pall bearer, which stung. Oddly the will also stated that Celeste, her estranged niece, was to be the executor of the estate during the probate process yet she was not named for any inheritance from it.
Instead Thomas was named as the sole beneficiary of the entire estate. He didn’t understand that and his mother offered no explanation. She only stated that she would have her lawyer friend, Daemon, handle the entire matter from the inventory process to paying the taxes and any lingering debts. By Galen’s estimate it would probably take about six months just to catalog everything. Once the estate was officially his, he would have to decide whether to keep it or to sell it. Whichever he decided, he was promised that Daemon would help him with whatever legal paperwork he would need too.
Then again, his aunt had always told him his mother was killed by demons and that his twin sister had been carried off. Lynnette claimed that unfortunately she had been successful in rescuing only him. Her story never set right with him. The details were never the same twice and she always got angry when he asked about his mother. Deep down he held on to the hope that his aunt was wrong and that he would find them both. His mother is alive and well. What really happened then? Where did his sister go? Where has his mother been this entire time?
Thomas paid little attention as Celeste took one hand and Rhae took the other. They lead him along behind the pallbearers. Lost in thought, he tried to puzzle out the truth behind his past. They stopped at the freshly dug gravesite. The pallbearers placed the casket upon the rigging that would lower it into the grave when it was time. A celebrant presided over the services. Galen stood with Thomas as a family member, but there were a handful of others present. Various people that have conducted business over the years with Lynnette. Some came for natural medicines and others requested courier services, but all needed the paranormal and supernatural variety that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Thomas wondered if Detective Ryker had ever been a customer.
Speak of the devil and he shall appear. In with the crowd, Thomas found Ryker dressed in a black suit. He wasn’t surprised by this but what shocking was to see the midnight woman clinging to his arm. She wore a form-fitting knee-length black dress with a pair of black flats. Her hat sported a delicate veil to shade her face but it didn’t conceal her striking green eyes. Their eyes met briefly and Thomas broke away from her sly smile. What was she doing here?
“Would anyone care to share any parting words?” said the celebrant.
His chest tightened. He didn’t want to be here anymore. Before long Lynnette would be under six feet of dirt. She was gone as they know her forever. All that she was will return to the stream of life and renew again. This was the significance of the phoenix and their family heritage. She taught him that. He knew that. Still, it was hard to take. Why did she have to be gone?
“Thomas?” Celeste said. She gently squeezed his shoulders with her arm.
Thomas stepped forward and accepted an orange tulip from the celebrant. Taking his shades off and tucking them in the front of his suit pocket, he turned toward the casket. He stood there for a time as his chest tightened again and his vision swam. Diligently with steady breaths, he cleared his head before finding the words he wanted to say.
“Aunt Lynnie and I fought all the time. I even thought I hated her,” he said. The tears came, but he didn’t stop them. “I’d give anything for her to be here just to fight with her one more time.”
An uncomfortable chuckle rippled through the crowd as Thomas continued.
“You hear me you old wind bag? Why did you have to leave me like that?”
He placed the tulip on the coffin as he fought back the sobs. Rhae rushed to his side and guided him back to Galen. Celeste walked up to the celebrant with sure strides to take a flower. Thomas watched as her aura flickered like flame. He could see faint reds, golds, and blues shimmer along the edges of her body and take shape. Brilliant wings formed and spread wide behind her. Might this be why his mother and his aunt were estranged from each other? Could his mother truly be the Phoenix Avatar his aunt always coveted?
Celeste placed the tulip on Lynnette’s coffin. “May your afterlife be graced with much love, light, and laughter forevermore,” Celeste said. Her countenance glowed with the brilliance of sunlight as she bowed slightly to the coffin, but few noticed. “May you never know the anguish of hate again.”
As she walked towards him, her wings folded back and her light diminished. The warmth from her hand as she touched his face brought a sort of comfort and peace to his heart that defined the word sanctuary to him. In that moment, pain and despair was forgotten. Neither existed and thankfully for Thomas, the sensation lingered when she pulled her hand away. Celeste wrapped her arm around Thomas’ shoulder as they watched Lynnette’s casket descend into its grave. One by one, members of the crowd tossed a handful of dirt onto the coffin before offering their condolences to Thomas and departing.
The midnight woman smiled as Ryker shook hands with Thomas. “I’d like you to meet an acquaintance of mine,” he said, “This is Lisha Amaya. Lisha this is Thomas Whitaker, Lynnette’s nephew.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Lisha said, offering her hand to shake his.
“Thank you,” Thomas said, clasping her hand into his. “I mean that.”
“I had stopped into town hoping to meet with her,” she said. “The news of her death was devastating.”
“It was for a lot of us,” said Rhae.
“Yes well,” Lisha said, as she pulled her hand away, “I hope I can stop by for a visit some time?”
“Of course,” Thomas said.
Lisha smiled and walked away with Ryker.
“Of course?” Rhae said.
“What was I supposed to say?” Thomas said as they returned to the car. “You saved our lives but you can’t come into our house?”
“That is rude,” Celeste said.
“Well that’s what I thought,” Thomas said, “even if it is weird that she’s here.”
“I don’t care,” Rhae said as she got in the sedan and slammed the door shut.