It’s that time…Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Kat Richardson’s Harper Blaine from her Greywalker series.
Recovering from a near-fatal accident, Seattle Private Investigator Harper Blaine develops the ability to move through the Grey: the realm of ghosts, vampires, witches, and magic that exists between our world and the next. Harper wants her life to return to normal, but when her clients turn out to be paranormal, the reluctant Greywalker is drawn into the affairs of ambitious vampires and angry ghosts. As her cases converge, Harper uncovers a plot that threatens Seattle’s Grey world and must choose between honor and survival.
If Christmas Presence gets your interest, make sure you check out the first book in the Greywalker series, Greywalker.
A quick note from Kat: Christmas Presence takes place after the end of Revenant and explains an object that showed up in the story Spite House that she cowrote with C.E. Murphy for the anthology Urban Allies.
Christmas Presence: A short Greywalker story
I hate shopping, and the prospect of buying presents is particularly awful. So the impending acquisition of a whole family full of relatives, a daunting number of gifts to find, multiplied by the fact that it was only two weeks to Christmas—or whatever we were celebrating—had fired my usual cynical attitude to outright curmudgeonliness. Personally, I was inclined to call the holiday “My leg aches, but at least I’m not dead-mas.” My left shin had only recently been rebuilt by a couple of clever surgeons, and unexpected December snow in London was not being kind to it.
I wasn’t supposed to be walking at all—much less lurching about the way I was—but I’d already spent a month on my back or in a chair and I was sick of it. I was on my own—Quinton was back in the US trying to clear up some paperwork and other friends and family were occupied anywhere but here—so I’d gravitated to the only places I knew. Limping along Piccadilly near the Burlington arcade with the help of a slightly wobbly crutch, I felt like the antithesis of Tiny Tim, mumbling imprecations under my breath until I stopped to stare into the window of a shop that had already been old when it survived the bombings of the Second World War.
The window was fogged from within, and yet it offered a warm golden light that twinkled on the metallic surfaces of whatever lay inside. As I stared into it, catching my breath and settling my mind around the impressive chorus of London’s Grey grid laid over the bass burble of the Thames, the air grew colder and a flurry of snow stung the side of my face. “Damn it,” I muttered.
“And a Happy Christmas to you, too, Miss.”
I turned toward the voice and found a slender blond man dressed in fancy Victorian clothes—right down to the top hat and long walking stick. His hair was quite long and his blue eyes were slightly cloudy and didn’t seem quite focussed. “Beggin’ your pardon but, are you, by chance, Miss Harper Blaine?”
I narrowed my eyes and looked sideways at him, measuring him in the Grey, and it was only then I noticed that the snow had banked up thickly against the buildings around me while the modern world had faded away, leaving me standing on pavement that had probably been new in the early nineteenth century. All the modern shops, buses, cabs, and pedestrians had given way to their historic predecessors; I had slipped into the Grey past without even noticing. Or perhaps my spectral companion had brought it with him; there was no mistaking that the young man beside me was a ghost.
“Who are you?” I demanded. If this spook was aware enough to know my name and seek me out, he wasn’t a simple remnant of the past, but a revenant or wraith with a conscious mind and a will of his own.
He removed his hat and bowed. “I’m called Nicholas Inwood,” he said. His accent was vaguely familiar and not nearly as posh as his clothing. “I’ve been sent to help you with your Christmas present.” He perched the hat back on his head and offered me his elbow to hold onto. Reluctantly, I put my arm through his and found it unexpectedly solid. “Come along,” he said and flicked his cane out in front of him as he began to walk at a good clip and in spite of my weak leg I had no trouble keeping up with him.
We walked for a good while and I had no idea how far we’d traveled in space or time, though it felt long, in spite of my lack of pain or fatigue. Inwood tapped the cane’s tip against the ground in front of him, sweeping it side-to-side as he walked along the city’s memory of a bustling Victorian shopping district. I peered at him as the specters before us moved out of our way.
“You’re blind,” I said.
“All my life,” he replied.
“You don’t happen to know an old mole catcher named Peter Marsden, do you?”
“As happens, I do. Look there,” he said, turning toward the nearest shop window.
I expected to see Marsden’s gouged eye sockets staring back at me from beyond the glass, but, instead, I saw a little golden cherub that grew great, black bat wings and flew around the display of glittering crystal raindrops while an ivory snake with ruby eyes slithered away below. Then the cherub landed, shifting its form again into a sleek, gilded leopard that lounged magnificently amid a host of smaller red and black creatures. All but one of the little beasts slowly changed colors to match the larger one, and the leopard turned its face toward mine and smiled a very satisfied smile, twitching its tail languorously. The remaining dark animal grew large, walked twice around the gold one, and then strolled away with a sound like deep laughter.
We followed it to the next window where a large, wind-up bronze toy featured a woman sitting on a sculpted lawn, rocking a baby in a cradle while a small girl spun slowly to a delicate tune that reminded me of Lisbon. The black animal sniffed at the toy, glanced at us, then bounded away. “Where did it go?” I asked.
“I’m not allowed to say. Let’s go inside.”
I let Inwood lead me into the shop, wondering exactly what kind of shopping trip this really was….
A long, white paper-maché skeleton grinned at me from a shelf near by. Inwood picked up a small object from the table next to the display window and dropped it into my coat pocket. “You’ll want this later. But look there,” he added, pointing with his cane.
The nearest walls were hung with a series of pictures that seemed to be painting themselves in layers of words and thick sweeps of color, then bursting into light and blankness before starting again. I stared at them, barely noticing Most of the paintings seemed to be landscapes, a few were portraits, and as I watched I recognized parts of the Puget Sound as it had been long ago, as well as bits I’d seen in person as they happened: the Madison Forrest House burning down; the building of the Great Wheel on the waterfront; hand-shaped monstrosities creeping through the Olympic National Forest while they built a sculpture of living light and sound; a young ballerina with crippled feet; an empty suit and a gold watch that vanished into a riot of fern and weeds; and my friend Phoebe in the midst of her bookstore with a cat perched on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot.
I turned to look deeper into the shop. A marionette of a ferret danced from strings that vanished into the ceiling. A curtain of misty ghosts swirled around a dragon-like creature of bone and silver that bit its tail, while a boat plunged through a stormy sea populated with mermaids and monstrous fish. Another puppet—an elderly woman pulling a wire grocery cart—trundled back and forth along a shelf between of a miniature version of Pioneer Park’s iron-and-glass pergola and a decrepit, pink vinyl doll house. Two carved wooden figures—a bear and a female ogre—glared at each other from each end of the shelf.
“Ah, it’s you,” said a soft voice.
I turned and looked farther into the shop. A girl in a white blouse sat on a tall stool behind an intricately-carved counter. Her hair shifted from red to black to blue as I watched. “My grandmother said to look out for you.”
“And here she is,” Inwood said. He gave me an encouraging push. “Go on. She doesn’t bite. At the moment.”
I stumbled, suddenly weary, to the counter, and hitched myself up onto a matching stool in front of the young woman. “Who’s your grandmother?” I asked.
“You haven’t met. Don’t fuss over it, just empty your pockets and we’ll take a look.”
“A look at what?”
“Your Christmas Present.”
I glanced at Inwood, who was staring at air somewhere west of my shoulder and east of the moon. “Safe as houses,” he said. “On my eyes, it is.”
Well… at least he had eyes, however non-functional.
A little tin rhinoceros ran in circles on the counter, bumping occasionally into a stuffed bear and a green cat. A small figure of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet sat sidesaddle on a model motorcycle nearby and waved at me.
This was, without doubt, the weirdest shopping trip I’d ever been on.
The young woman put a black rod on the counter between us; the round rod was about two-and-a-half feet long and an inch-and-a-half thick with channels that curled up and around the rod like vines cut into the surface. “Now your pockets. Please,” she said.
I emptied my coat pockets onto the counter—not that there was much in them beside my hotel key and a bus ticket.
But what clattered out was a jangling silver charm bracelet, Quinton’s fake ID in the name of Christopher Marlowe Smith, and a small sugar skull. The charm bracelet was heavy with tiny objects: a gold cat’s paw print; a fanged face carved from jade; a framed picture that changed so constantly I couldn’t distinguish the images; tiny ships, motorcycles, salmon, and cars; a two-headed serpent; a baby; a pirate; an eye; a dagger; a tiny wooden sphere… I couldn’t even identify all the charms before the woman swept them up and studied them behind a cupped hand with a jeweler’s loupe.
“Quite nice. Yes, very nice. But there’s something missing…” She pulled a drawer out of the cabinet behind her and poked through it, then dropped a bird—a vulture-like creature with a wreath in its mouth—onto the counter. Then she swept up everything on the counter except for the rod and began rubbing the objects together in her hands and whispering to them.
I stared at her, then glanced at Inwood. “What—?”
“You’re not s’posed to ask what a present is. You’ll see, if you’re patient.”
“But I don’t need a present—I don’t want one.”
“Because you’ll feel indebted. What bollocks. Just shush a moment.”
“But—” I started.
He made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat. “They were right about you.”
“Who were right? About what?”
“That would be telling.”
The young woman picked up the black rod with one hand and rubbed the other up and down its length, singing quietly to it as she did. Silver and sparks flowed into the carved channels, making leaves and vines and tiny, clever faces that blinked and winked from the surface. I could hear the chime and rattle of the Guardian Beast overhead. The woman raised her head in its direction. “Yes, that would be nice, thank you,” she said.
Something dropped onto the counter between us, long and bone-white, but glowing with a lambent light. The woman picked it up and bent it onto one end of the black rod to make a handle. She frowned at the black rod with its curving handle of silver and bone on top. “Nicholas, I think we need champagne,” she said.
My mother’s favorite drink. And I thought I might know what all the charms were, now: icons of the people who’d crossed through my life—and changed it—since I’d become a Greywalker. Clients, friends… family.
“As you say,” Inwood replied and seemed to pull a bottle from the air. He popped the cork and the foam sprayed onto the black-and-silver rod the young woman with the changeable hair held up. She laughed as the bubbles cascaded over it. “There! That’s done the trick!”
Then she shook it off and held the object out. “This is for you.”
It was a cane—a walking stick, I guess—of black wood with a bone handle and silver twisting up the shaft whispering magic.
“It’s rude to refuse a well-meant gift,” Inwood said.
“But… I’m supposed to be shopping for everyone else’s present.”
“Gewgaws and gimcracks from some shop? Oh, it’s lovely, yes, to have a pretty thing to hold, but there is a time to consider that gifts wrapped in shiny paper are nothing to the gifts that come from inside us.”
“Oh, from the heart, like some Hallmark card sentiment?” I shot back.
Inwood’s eyes didn’t focus on me, but I felt the weight of his gaze nonetheless. “Not a bit of it. From the spirit. Have you no idea all the things you’ve done…?”
“I had to do those things.”
“Why?” the woman asked, pushing the cane into my hand. “So you could nearly die? So you could suffer for a world that wouldn’t ever know or care?”
“For them. For friends and family.” The woman said, standing up.
She had seemed so small, but now she stood over me, tall and majestic, glowing gold and green. Inwood stood next to her, bright silver and glittering obsidian black. “This gift is from them,” she continued.
“What… what is it?”
“Just a little spell,” said Inwood. “And a cane, of course. Can’t stand seeing you bumbling about, so.”
“The words you want are ‘thank you,’” Inwood said, laughing. “Now off y’go. Straight through the gate and out. And don’t worry about the Christmas presents, just Christmas Present. Or whatever holiday it is.”
They both laughed, musical, silver laughter that turned the shop into swirling gems in gold and silver mist.
When the fog dissipated, I found myself sitting on a park bench with the black-and-silver cane in hands and the chill of snow gathering around me.
My cell phone burped and chirped and I dug it out of my pocket.
“Hello, sweetheart. I’m on my way back. Are you ready for your Christmas present?”
I looked at the cane and at the park around me. “I think I already met him.”
Meet Kat Richardson!
Kat is a California native with a degree in Magazine Journalism from California State University, Long Beach. She currently lives in the Seattle area with her husband and a pit bull named Bella aboard an old wooden boat that is haunted by the ghosts of ferrets. She rides a motorcycle, shoots target pistol, and has been known to swing dance, sing, and spend insufficient time at the gym. She finally got her first TV in 2011–yes, she missed Buffy but not Firefly! And, although she no longer lives there, she is an advocate for California Ferret Legalization.
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