“The last tenants said she comes out promptly at four-fifteen. Same time she died.” Anja closed the file and handed it back to Dante.
Dante accepted the file from her and glanced at his watch. “Almost five past four now.”
“We’re right on time,” Anja said with a positive smile.
Dante cradled her face in both his hands. “Don’t die.”
Anja gave a confirming nod.
Dante punched the code into the lock box on the rental property, pulled the lock box off the door handle, and pushed the door into the vacant house.
Anja patted his shoulder on her way inside.
Dante pulled the door shut behind her.
The house felt empty, which seemed odd. With its traumatic history and reports of paranormal attacks, the house should feel oppressed by the presence of the Tall Lady.
Unless the residual timing blanketed the negativity of her spirit. Precisely fifteen minutes past the hour, the energy of the Tall Lady’s death would open the threshold to Purgatory, allowing the evil spirit to wander the halls of her home once again. Then, her malicious intent to torment and kill children would afflict the property, giving it the haunted house impression suiting its history.
Anja glanced at her watch. Ten minutes past four. Plenty of time for a tour.
Dark wood flooring met with clean white baseboards. Drab tan walls deserved a refreshing paint job. Maybe a pastel blue or cheery yellow. Something to officiate the house cleansing.
Anja wandered into the kitchen. A corner to cook in, a dining room that might fit a four-person table. Anja circled back into the living room suitable for a couch and loveseat in front of the fireplace.
The hallway to the left of the front door led to the bedrooms. Two on the left at the end of the hall, the master bed on the right. Bathroom first door on the left. Anja chose not to linger there. Not to stare at the bathtub that took a woman’s life. Not to stand in the hallway where the crime happened. A tragedy too grim to be possible, let alone to meditate on.
Anja returned to the front room. From that vantage point, with her back to the front door, she would see every possible attack coming.
Four-fourteen, she read on her watch.
Sixty seconds until her manifestation.
Anja detached the bottom half of her crucifix necklace. A three inch blade—slender and silver and sharp—extended out of the handle. She gripped the small knife like a push dagger. Small but deadly. With that point, a single puncture in the right place could be critical. Punctures in several of those places could be fatal. Anja knew all the right places.
Gurgling and dripping sounded to Anja’s left.
It’s time, she thought.
The water was shut off months ago when the last tenants abandoned the house, but splashing and spilling confirmed that something in the bathroom overflowed. Water trickled out into the hall.
Electricity—that was shut off when the water was—buzzed and flashed purple light from the bathroom. The room where the Tall Lady had killed herself in a bloody bath.
“Mommy, please!” came from Anja’s right. She heard tiny feet scampering away, but saw no children.
Splashing footsteps in water approached.
Anja faced the hall again. Opposite of the bathroom, a shadow grew upon the wall. Taller, closer, splash, splash. The shadow of the figure curved up onto the ceiling.
Six foot two, the file had read.
The Tall Lady.
Out from around the corner, the figure slowly strode into the hall in a long dress and high-laced boots.
Anja’s eyes enlarged as she gaped at the woman.
“Those little bastards. Always calling me, always crying, always making sound.” The Tall Lady stared at her shadow on the wall, mumbling to herself. “Always calling me, always crying, always…making…sound.”
A shiver down Anja’s spine prickled her skin with goosebumps.
The Tall Lady slowly turned until she saw Anja.
Anja gasped, thinking maybe if she didn’t move, didn’t breathe, the Tall Lady would resume her residual chanting. But the Tall Lady cocked her head as she side-stepped to acknowledge Anja.
In the flashing light of the bathroom, Anja made out black sockets for the Tall Lady’s eyes, pale white skin, and dark hair pulled up into a bun. She wore a handmaid’s dress that was white from the shoulders to the waist. At the waist, blood stains smeared down to the ripped bottom.
“You’re not a child. But you can see me.”
Anja gripped her dagger.
The Tall Lady revealed a steak knife.
“Do you have children?”
Here she comes.
“Not with hips like those you don’t.”
Anja retreated a step for every step of the Tall Lady’s approach. Each step lured the ghost out of the narrow hallway into a better battlefield: the spacious living room.
“Do you want to have children?”
At the end of the hall, too far from the bathroom light and blocked from what little sunlight remained of the evening, darkness veiled the Tall Lady’s features. As a black shadow, she towered over Anja. The top of Anja’s head reached the Tall Lady’s bosom. Anja calculated that all her punctures would have to be below the breasts. Any higher and the Tall Lady would see the dagger coming. Thigh, abdomen, or in the tricep if possible.
“You do want to be a mother,” the Tall Lady whispered from the dark.
Anja held her breath. Fight response triggered. Blood pumped to her limbs.
“Then I’ll cut out your parts so you can’t!”
The Tall Lady lunged out at Anja, slashing with the steak knife.
Anja reflexively ducked and punctured the Tall Lady in the stomach.
Oblivious to her wound, the ghost stabbed down at Anja.
Anja stopped the knife before penetration.
The Tall Lady stacked one hand on top of the other to drill the knife into Anja’s face.
Anja groaned as she resisted the ghost’s strength. “aaaAAH-HUH!” Anja kicked the Tall Lady in the gut. They separated.
Growling and snapping, the Tall Lady thrust herself at Anja. Slash right, slash left. Anja retreated, dodged the first slash, blocked the second, blocked a surprise kick and stabbed her dagger into the Tall Lady’s femoral artery. The second puncture to go unnoticed by the Tall Lady.
Having drawn the Tall Lady out into the dimming light of dusk, Anja saw the blood stains on her dress more clearly as tiny handprints that glided down into a pool of blood.
“Mommy, please!” echoed in the halls from the past.
The tiniest plea produced the grandest devastation. Those three-year-old twins were really dead. The Tall Lady had slit her own children’s throats with a steak knife. Even in death, the children had reached for the one person who was supposed to protect them.
The Tall Lady aimed the serrated side of her blade at Anja’s throat. Anja exerted all her strength against the steak knife and forced it away just enough to duck. The slice went over her head, and the Tall Lady practically bent herself in half missing her mark.
Anja kneed the Tall Lady in the chest. The Tall Lady’s body hiccuped with the force.
Anja swept the Tall Lady’s feet out from under her.
The Tall Lady thudded hard facedown on the floor.
“Never fought anyone capable of fighting back, have you?” Anja said.
The Tall Lady raged in embarrassment. She scrambled to her feet and charged to tackle. Anja threw away the train of her floor-length dress to expose her legs. When the Tall Lady got close enough, Anja kicked her in the side. The Tall Lady crippled with the pain, and Anja took advantage of the ghost being on her level with a kick to the head. Foot connected to face and the Tall Lady went down a second time, the steak knife skidding away.
The Tall Lady tucked her head into her chest as a guttural growl rumbled in her chest. Her fingers clawed long scratches into the wood. She got to her knees then to her feet.
Come on, drain, Anja thought.
“AHHH!” The Tall Lady ran at Anja with wicked claws, slashing right and left. Anja dodged each attack, noticing the fresh red stains on the Tall Lady’s dress under the arm and on the stomach where she had been stabbed.
Distracted by the blood, Anja allowed herself to be captured by the throat.
The Tall Lady picked Anja up off her feet so their eyes could level. “She screamed because of the blood, you know?”
The echo of that night replayed for Anja. Behind where she dangled, being choked, Anja heard grunting and whimpering and a child’s body thudding to the floor.
“Mommy, please, no.”
A little girl’s blood-curdling scream continued until a squelch silenced her. More grunting, spitting and crying followed by another thud.
“She never screamed again.”
Anja’s eyes stung with tears.
“I finally found peace.”
Anja plunged her dagger twice into the Tall Lady’s jugular.
The Tall Lady dropped Anja to her feet. The Tall Lady tapped her neck wound and the sight of blood shocked her. “You BITCH!”
The ghost hashed her claws at Anja again. This time, Anja let her. The Tall Lady’s hands phased straight through Anja’s head. Betrayed by her strength, the Tall Lady stared at her hands and panicked at their transparency.
“What’s happening to me?” She noticed the fresh blood on her dress. “I’m bleeding.”
“You think you are. That’s what you remember should happen when you get stabbed. What’s really happening is you’re losing energy. I drained your apparition of energy and exposed your soul.”
The Tall Lady fell to her knees and pressed both bloody hands to the wood to brace herself. Energy in the manifestation of blood released from the ghost’s apparition, withdrawing solidity and strength.
“What’ve you done to me?” the Tall Lady said.
“You killed your babies for peace and quiet. And you denied God after you committed suicide. You chose this.”
“They deserved it.”
The Tall Lady flashed a jagged smile, proud of her sin.
A flame sparked on the floor between the Tall Lady’s hands. The candle-sized flame shot off in opposite directions, forming a complete circle around the ghost. The ring of fire collapsed under the Tall Lady and flames spurred up, consuming her in hellfire. She tried to crawl out of the circle to escape the pain, but the fire blazed into an impenetrable wall.
A pair of black, leathery hands extended from the pit of the eternal flame and grasped the Tall Lady’s dress. She reached for Anja, but devilish hands yanked her to Hell. The core of the earth swallowed the ghost and the flames. The ring of fire retracted to its starting point and flickered out with a satisfying tssst.
The house cleansing was successful.
Anja reattached the dagger to the base of her necklace. Rubbing her neck where the Tall Lady had choked her, Anja wandered to and opened the front door. Dante turned with hopeful eyes. Instinctively, he checked her from head to toe for wounds.
“You hurt?” he said.
“It’s done,” Anja said.
Dante got a good look at her sad eyes. “Something’s wrong.”
Anja pointed over her shoulder. “There was some damage.”
Dante glanced into the house and saw the claw marks on the wall, the burn mark on the floor. He reached in and pulled the door closed. “You know I don’t care about that. What happened?”
Anja slumped down the porch steps and away from the house. Dante followed her to the sidewalk before tugging her elbow. “Anja, what was it?”
Anja lifted her teary eyes to Dante. “She really killed those kids.”
Dante deflated with understanding. “Yeah, she did.”
Tears dripped from Anja’s eyes. “I heard that little girl scream, ‘Mommy, please.’ She begged for her life at three years old. I heard the knife on their throats, them gasping and choking and their little bodies. I saw…” Anja gasped as the emotion of all of it bombarded her. “I saw their handprints on her dress.” She showed Dante her palms. “Tiny handprints in their own blood.”
“Oh, Anja, I’m so sorry.” Dante pushed her hands together and pulled her into his arms. “But hey…”
Anja sniffled as she met his eyes.
Dante brushed away the sunshine-blonde hair stuck to her tears. “Anja, those children are in Heaven. In utopia pain doesn’t exist. So that woman’s crimes can never hurt them again, okay?”
Anja wiped her face. “How could anyone do such a thing? Hurt someone so harmless and defenseless?”
Dante lifted her chin to survey the redness on her neck. “Think you’re upset because of the personal connection?”
Anja waited in his eyes for an elaboration.
“Innocent and harmless,” he said as he rubbed her shoulders to comfort her. “Hurt by someone meant to protect you.”
Anja covered the brownish scar on her right forearm as if by doing so, she could hide the truth in Dante’s words.
“You suffered their pain,” Dante said. “But you know what the difference is?”
“I had a fighting chance?”
“You survived.” Dante guided her by the small of her back to his Dodge Durango. “Your work’s not done yet. You liberated their demon. Now it’s time to liberate yours.” He opened the passenger door and Anja climbed in. “After you recuperate, you know.”
“Maybe a nap and supper first?”
“After I pray for cleansing.”
“I’ve got a restaurant in mind,” Dante said.
“Somewhere you’ll love,” he said with a boyish smile. “I’mna go put the lock back on the door. Hang tight, okay?” Dante closed her door.
Anja watched Dante through the car window, and suddenly felt very alone without him. Secluded and vulnerable and afraid. Like she’d walked down the wrong alley at night and stumbled on trouble.
Must be an echo of the fight, she thought. Remnants of the Tall Lady’s hatred poisoning Anja’s aura. Making her feel suffocated in the completely sealed car. Overemphasizing her distance from Dante.
Anja gasped so hard her chest tightened and her back went ramrod straight.
“Miss me?” a voice growled from the backseat.
A coal-colored arm shot forward and wrapped around Anja’s throat, crushing her windpipe. Anja gasped for air, but scratching at the arm proved useless. She abandoned getting her windpipe free to reach for the door handle.
“You’ll never beat me,” the demonic voice said.
“C…c…c..” Can’t breathe…
Anja banged her hand on the door, desperate to catch Dante’s attention. She felt darkness nearing. Her sight narrowed as if the curtain on her existence began to close.
“You couldn’t save him before, you can’t save him now,” the voice said.
As if in her final moment of life, Anja saw her entire relationship with her ex-boyfriend Sal from start to end. All the good, the scary, and the forgotten. All of it resurfaced in a flash before her mind’s eye and punched her healed heart.
“We miss you, Anja,” Sal said through the demon’s voice.
NO! Dante, HELP! she screamed internally.
The driver’s door opened. “…drop you off at the Azer? I could—”
The demon vanished.
Air gushed into Anja’s lungs. She exhaled cries and crumbled in her seat, rubbing her sore throat.
“Whoa, whoa, what happened?” Dante said.
“I saw…” She strained to tell and abandoned the story for a one-word summary, “Helizar.”
“Here?” Dante glanced at the backseat.
Anja threw her head back into the headrest, struggling to catch her breath.
“You just can’t catch a break, huh?”
“No more,” Anja whispered. “This has to end. Now.”
Read from the beginning here:
Read the rest of Cursed by Cobrador when it’s released March 2022!