As a little treat and to whet your appetites for The Reanimator’s Heart, I thought I would share the first two chapters of the story. Keep in mind, it is still undergoing editing, so there may be a typo or two. The Reanimator’s Heart is the first in a new queer paranormal fantasy series and is an off-shoot of Kinship and Kindness as both take place around the New York Paranormal Society.
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The Hand of St. Catherine
God only granted Sister Mary Agnes glimpses of the sublime on Thursday nights when the moon rose high enough to peek through the tallest windows of the monastery. Despite praying with the other sisters five times a day and spending hours in solitary prayer and study, she only received visions in secret. Stealing across the courtyard to the chapel, Sister Mary Agnes paused to gaze up at the darkened windows of their sleeping quarters to make certain she hadn’t awoken the other sisters. So far, she had been lucky in that no one had noticed her leaving in the night. Perhaps they thought it merely insomnia cured by meditative prayer. The Mother Superior might tolerate that, but would she put a stop to it if she knew that one of the sisters had lied by omission about having visions for years?
As she pushed open the chapel’s oaken doors, a beam of moonlight broke through the stained glass windows floating high above the altar, casting the faces of Christ and the Virgin in stark relief. Motes danced before the crucifix as Sister Mary Agnes fell to her knees, relishing the way the cold stone burned through the layers of her habit. She reached deep into her pocket until her fingers found the rosary her mother’s family had carried all the way from Bohemia. This wasn’t the plain rosary she used in daily prayers or when she prayed beside the sick. It was beautiful and far too fine for her. Its lush mahogany and gold medallions smacked of the decadence she had forsworn at her vows. She couldn’t flaunt the piece in public for obvious reasons, but she also couldn’t trust that it wouldn’t suddenly reveal her secret during the day. The timing of the holy visions had been consistent, but she wasn’t ready to tell the world yet. At the tug of the spirit within her, she pressed her forehead to the ground.
She should know better. If God wanted her to lose control, it was his divine will, and she had to trust him. She let the wooden beads slip between her fingers in time with the movement of her lips. With each prayer, her mind cleared until she brushed against the center pendant representing the First Mystery. Her heart slowed, then hastened as every muscle in her body seemed to tighten and go slack all at once. Sister Mary Agnes should have been afraid, and she had been when her mother presented her with the rosary of some long forgotten cloistered great-aunt and the visions began. At thirteen, she knew she was destined for sainthood. For who saw visions of the Almighty and the Holy Mother but saints?
Sister Mary Agnes’s lips parted and her eyes rolled back in her head at the wave of toe-curling ecstasy overloading every synapse in her body until she could sense nothing but her soul pulling through time to meet the soft brown eyes of the Blessed Mother. Today, she wore the guise of a weary woman about her mother’s age, her face lined with age, silver threads weaving through her ebony hair. For one tender moment, she held Sister Mary Agnes’s face in her gnarled, olive hands. Light flooded the nun’s vision. Love purer than any human could know bore down upon her, terrible and beautiful as the woman holding her. Blood dripped from the corner of the Virgin’s eye, and Sister Mary Agnes knew. She knew, and she wasn’t afraid. She would be returning to the Lord.
Her sisters would find her papers, and they would know. The friend she had been writing to for years about her visions would help publish her writings. He would see things through. She could die in the Blessed Mother’s arms knowing her last vision would go unrecorded as long as the others would live on. With a sear of light, Sister Mary Agnes left this world.
Sister Mary Agnes’s body slumped forward, limbs akimbo before the altar. The shadow in the nave waited, watching the nun’s still back to confirm she was truly dead. He would end up in hell, of that, he was sure. If all the other things he had done hadn’t put him firmly there already, this sealed it. Standing over her body, he knelt and carefully rolled her onto her back. Her eyes were half-closed and her lips lax, but even in her habit, he recognized her face. It was the same face he seen and loved throughout his boyhood when she was still called Maggie. They had both gotten out of the tenement and made something of themselves but only one could survive. As he closed her eyes with the lightest brush of his fingertips, he winced at the blooming pinpricks of blood left behind by what he had done. He wasn’t sure he regretted it, but he was sorry it had come to this.
Sitting back on his heels, he checked her empty palms and invaded her pockets only to find paper and a medal. He couldn’t risk lighting a candle and drawing the attention of anyone who could see the chapel windows, but he had to find it. If the sisters got their hands on it, he would never see it again and killing her would have been for nothing. Prostrating himself before the altar, a flash of gold glinted from beneath the nearest pew. The moon still hung high in the night, so he wrapped his handkerchief around his hand and carefully pulled the rosary out by the chain. In the faint light, he could scarcely make out the miniatures engraved in the softness of the gold medallions, but even without seeing it, he could sense the relic humming within the crucifix.
Peeling the fabric back, he stared down into the face of Christ, barely more than an impression of features. Unlike most crucifixes, this Christ’s arms were not attached to his body, but that wasn’t obvious unless you knew that once upon a time, the thin form of Christ had been the bone from a saint’s palm. Saint Catherine’s visionary magic and the belief of her followers had permeated her very bones. While most of her body resided in Siena in pieces under glass, someone had the forethought to keep a fragment of her hidden away in the most unassuming reliquary. There were few things he appreciated about those who came before him, but the people of the Middle Ages knew how to sense magic and grab onto it with both hands. For centuries, there had been rumors that someone had the hand of St. Catherine somewhere in Europe, but it had been lost for over a two hundred years. It wasn’t until his friend had doodled on the margin of a letter that he realized what she had. She never knew. Maybe that was his one regret, but perhaps it was better she died thinking the visions had been a blessing and not a fluke of fate.
Wrapping the rosary up tightly, he stowed it in his pocket and turned his attention to Sister Mary Agnes. He could leave her to be discovered in the chapel, her body looked whole enough, but the nuns would surely sense something was amiss. Pleasure and pain warred in her ecstatic expression, beatific as St. Teresa. The eyes would give him away. Lifting her into his arms, he backed out the way he came through the darkened halls to the kitchen and the snowy trees beyond the cloister. Sister Mary Agnes’s head lolled against his chest, but he pretended she had fallen asleep and he was carrying her home. This was why he had volunteered to do this himself. It wasn’t cruelty, it was mercy. None of the others would have been as gentle in the face of such awesome power.
Graves of past sisters and the local faithful broke through the ground like gentle hands reaching for her. Beside them stood a lifestyle statue of the Virgin on a pedestal of rough stone. This was where he would leave her, safe among the people she had longed to be. The others had said to burn her or bury her or drop her in the nearest river. He couldn’t. He would just have to leave her here and trust the sisters would think she had frozen outside. Laying her before the statue of Mary, he carefully arranged her body to look as if she had fallen asleep on her side.
“Good night, Mags,” he whispered, pressing his lips to her temple. As he walked toward the tree line, he stopped at the sensation of eyes boring into his back, but when he turned, all he found was the Blessed Mother’s all-knowing gaze.
Dead people had been at the center of Oliver Barlow’s world for as long as he could remember, but that didn’t mean he liked them. On one hand, they were the optimal patient. They were quiet, they could be put away when he was tired of dealing with them, they didn’t hide things they would have in life, and they truly couldn’t help any weird noises or smells they made. Unfortunately for Oliver, they rarely stayed so innocuous in his care. Taking one last long swig of coffee, Oliver steeled himself for what he was about to do.
Mr. Hezekiah Henderson had come all the way from the Pennsylvania countryside sealed in a lead-lined casket laden with preservation spells. That should have kept him, but as Oliver well knew, it didn’t always work. He had read the man’s file three times to better understand what may have happened to him before his death and to put off his least favorite activity. Mr. Henderson had been found disemboweled in the woods outside his home. Oliver sighed. Preservation spells could only do so much. With a final breath of uncontaminated air, he cautiously freed the latch and opened the casket.
Inside, Mr. Henderson rested with his sightless eyes staring ponderously at the morgue’s ceiling and his mouth agape. The man inside still looked like a wealthy businessman with his well-groomed, albeit now askew, mustache, uncalloused hands, and what remained of an expensive pinstripe suit. A suit that had now soaked up a considerable amount of blood and offal, but that was unavoidable as his chest and neck had been flayed opened by what looked like claws and teeth. According to their report, the investigators thought it could be a werewolf attack or something far more esoteric from beyond the veil. Craning his neck and pushing up with his knee on the table, Oliver measured his hand against the claw marks. They were large, but werewolf attacks tended to be far less messy than this. Wrinkling his nose at the familiar metallic, meaty tang of innards, he carefully tidied Mr. Henderson’s remaining entrails into his abdomen and buttoned his jacket over it. At least Mr. Henderson wasn’t too far gone yet.
After washing his hands and double checking that all sharp instruments were out of reach, except for the scalpel tucked into his pocket, Oliver leaned into the coffin and laid his hand over Henderson’s forehead. He closed his eyes and focused on the faint glimmer of life still clinging stubbornly to the man’s body. The microscopic organisms crawling through his intestines, the muscles that fought to clench and unclench as his life slipped away, the minor storm still cascading through his brain. Oliver’s breath hitched as the hook caught and Mr. Henderson took a shuddering breath. The tether burrowed deeper between them, sending Oliver’s heart sputtering until the other man blinked his still dead eyes and sat up in his coffin without seeming to notice the holes in his chest.
“Who are you?” Henderson rasped, his voice whistling through the tear in his throat.
Oliver straightened and schooled his features against the familiar discomfort. “Oliver Barlow, sir. Now, this may be alarming to you, but you are dead. You have died and are at the New York Paranormal Society in my lab. I just want to ask you a few questions.”
“Dead! I’ll have you know—”
Like clockwork with the older men, but at least the less than freshly dead were easily distracted. “Mr. Henderson, what is the last thing you remember? Did you summon anything from beyond the veil recently?”
Henderson recoiled like he had been slapped. “Summon anything! What do you take me for? I have never summoned anything in my life. My gift is speaking to beasts. If I had summoned a demon—”
“Sir, what is the last thing you remember?” Oliver stood with his arms crossed and resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. These people were infuriating.
“I was petting my cat, Shiva.”
Oliver looked from his hand to the deep scratches across the man’s body. “Shiva is a Hindu god, isn’t he?”
The dead man’s eyes lit up, though Oliver could feel his hold slipping. Mr. Henderson would soon realize he could step out of the coffin and that would only led to problems. “Why yes. I named him after the deity. His sister is Durga.”
“And how long have you had Durga and Shiva?”
“Since they were cubs.”
And there it was. “Durga and Shiva are tigers, aren’t they?”
“Of course, they are, but—”
“Thank you, Mr. Henderson, you have been most helpful. Have a good rest.”
Before the man could say another word, Oliver snapped the tether. Mr. Henderson fell back into the coffin with a squelch as Oliver wretched at the horrid sensation of being covered in bugs. He hated the awful feeling of every hair standing on end when he cut the tether and the remaining energy raced across his skin. He rubbed his palms on his trousers and gagged again. It never got easier, and the longer he let them prattle on, the longer the feeling lasted. Shaking out his hands and taking slow, deep breaths at least helped. After a long moment, he steadied his breathing long enough to slam the lid shut and lock Mr. Henderson in for good. Oliver hurried over to the sink and washed his hands again. He winced as the water burned his chapped flesh, but it was worth it to be rid of any traces of Mr. Henderson and his energy.
“And all for death by pet tiger,” he murmured under his breath with a derisive sigh. He would have to take measurements and do sketches to confirm his findings, but at least there wasn’t something supernatural wreaking havoc in their world. Death by foolish choices was a far too common cause of death for Oliver’s liking. Half the people the Paranormal Society brought to him died by their own thoughtless hands and not on purpose. A spell gone wrong, thinking they could persuade a lesser demon should submit to their will, a box haunted by a spirit that they just had to open. While the cause of death didn’t say it, death came because they lacked a healthy respect for their own gifts or the otherworldly creatures that lived among them.
The one good thing to come out of his job was a healthy fear of his own abilities. For most of his life, Oliver Barlow hated being a necromancer. People weren’t keen on those who could raise the dead, and when you factored in his “unsuitable” temperament, he felt like a pariah at the best of times. But he highly doubted his ability to raise the dead would get him killed. He had too many fail-safes and rules to ensure that didn’t happen.
Rolling the worktable over to the storage drawers, he shoved the bespelled casket out of sight. He would deal with the particulars of Mr. Henderson’s case later. Now, he would write up his report for the head inspector. Hopefully the tigers hadn’t gotten too far. As he put pen to paper, he paused at the sound of a slow click behind him. He focused on his chest, but the tether had broken. Certainly, it couldn’t be— He had only half-risen when the laboratory door flew open and slammed into the wall. Oliver jumped, whacking his leg into the desk and knocking over the stool. Biting back a murderous look, he was relieved to find Gwen Jones standing on the landing, admiring her handiwork.
“Apologies, Ol. I don’t know my own strength sometimes,” she said between wheezes. “The door and wall are all right, though.”
Tripping over the fallen chair, Oliver rushed to her side. Her usually rich brown skin was startlingly pale and flushed with sweat that flattened the tight curls framing her face. He slipped an arm around her elbows and quickly steered her into the room’s only other chair. She rolled her dark brown eyes but didn’t stop him.
“Forgive me, but you don’t sound fine.”
Oliver darted over to the bench under the window and grabbed one of his personal mugs. Decanting a cup of syrupy, overcooked coffee, he winced at the astringent smell of burnt grounds. It would have to do.
“Here, inhale the steam for a bit, and then, drink it. The heat should help.”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were trying to poison me.” Gwen took a slow sip and grimaced. “That is disgusting. Please tell me you don’t drink it like this normally.”
“I got involved with,” his eyes drifted to the preservation cabinet, “something.”
“I’m sure I don’t want to know, though that would explain the smell.”
“Try not to talk until you can breathe, please.”
“Yes, Doctor Barlow,” she rasped sarcastically but without malice.
Taking another cautious sip, she watched Oliver from over the cup. She knew he was practically vibrating on the inside. He had given up practicing medicine as a doctor almost as soon as he started, yet old habits died hard, especially when it came to Gwen. As she drank, he listened for the echoing wheeze of her breath, but after refilling the cup a second time, the crackle had mostly disappeared. Asthma could kill as swiftly as tigers. The thought of that made his chest tighten as he sat stock-still on his stool.
Sensing his mounting anxiety, Gwen released a sigh and lightly patted his arm. “I’m fine. Seriously, Ol. I’m fine now. The drink helped.”
“Good. So, what was so important that you had to risk your life to visit or were you running from someone?”
“Ugh, I think it was John Marsh’s godawful cologne that set me off. I walked into a cloud of it, and it took my breath away. I wasn’t even close to him!”
“And you came running to warn me to stay away to avoid a cologne headache? Or do you have more corpse-related questions for your research.”
“You wish. Unless you’ve had vampires in here, you are of no help to me.”
“There’s no such thing as vampires.”
“So says you.” A sly smile graced her lips when she added, “Actually, I came to get you because a certain Inspector Galvan is back in town, and he would like to speak to you.”
Oliver’s cheeks flushed all the way to the tips of his ears. Quickly averting his gaze, he emptied the remaining coffee into the sink. “Any idea what he wants? I was about to write out my report about—”
“Oliver!” Shaking her head, she gave him that sad, barely piteous look. It was mostly exasperated amusement, but he still felt that minor sting of pity. That he must have no idea he was self-sabotaging when he full-well knew he was and couldn’t help himself. “The dead can wait. Go talk to Galvan.”
He opened his mouth to speak, to refute the urgency of reporting a tiger attack, only to deflate. “Will you come with me?”
A grin shot across her lips as she moved to catch his arm and haul him up the stairs. “Of course, now let’s go before you lose your nerve.”
He sniffed and froze. “No, wait.”
“Two minutes outside first, that’s all. Don’t give me that look. It’s important. I don’t want to smell like a corpse.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Two minutes.”
With a fleeting glance over his shoulder at the morgue, Oliver slipped out the door to the loading bay and pressed his back against the cold brick. A flurry of snow swirled across the pavement and over the black leather of Oliver’s boots, but it did little to cool his nerves. No one was around, so he shook out his hands and paced in time with his breath. How could he want something so badly, yet dread the very thought of it? Panic coursed through his veins as he sank to the ground in a tight ball. He would just be very still. As long as he was still, he couldn’t say anything foolish or weird. Counting to forty, he braced himself and went back inside before Gwen could fetch him.
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