"So," I said, drawing the word out while I gave Helsing a few scratches around his ears, "how do you two know each other?"
"We met in New Orleans several decades ago," Elisabeth murmured.
"June, 1935," Fabian supplied before giving one of his sideburns a self-conscious rub. "I remember because it was, ah, unusually hot that year."
I almost bit the sides of my cheeks to keep from laughing. Fabian had a crush on the lovely ghost! His lame explanation for remembering the exact month and year they had met when ghosts didn't even feel temperatures was topped only by the cow-eyed look he darted her way before schooling his features to faux blandness.
Yep, he had it bad, all right.
"Okay, you two have been friends for a while, but you're not here just for a social visit, so what brings you, Elisabeth?"
I assumed it had something to do with the ghost she wanted to kill, but if so, she'd be shit out of luck. For one, I wasn't a contract killer of any species, and Bones had long since retired from that business himself. For another, I couldn't even help my uncle willingly find a way to the other side. So offing a phantom was way outside my abilities even if I did have a sudden urge to go ghostbusting, which I didn't.
She folded her hands in her lap, fingers twisting together. "Back in 1489, at the age of twenty-seven, I was burned at the stake for witchcraft," she began softly.
Even though that was over half a millennium ago, I winced. I'd been burned before, and both times had been excruciating experiences.
"I'm sorry," I said.
Elisabeth nodded, not looking away from her hands. "I wasn't a witch," she added, as if that made any difference in the horrific nature of her execution. "I was a midwife who challenged the local magistrate when he accused a mother of deliberately strangling her baby with its own cord. The fool knew nothing of the complications that birthing often wrought, and I told him so. Soon after, he sent for Heinrich Kramer."
"Who was he?"
"A murdering bastard," Bones replied before Elisabeth had a chance. "He wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches, a book responsible for several centuries' worth of witch hunts. According to Kramer, anyone in a skirt was like as not to be a witch."
So Elisabeth had been killed by a homicidal zealot with a serious case of misogyny. I knew what it was like to be singled out by a zealot, and that made me even more sympathetic toward her.
"I'm sorry," I said with even more sincerity this time. "However Kramer bought it back then, I hope it was long and painful."
"It wasn't," she said, bitterness edging her tone. "He fell off his horse and broke his neck instantly instead of being stomped on and left to suffer."
"Not fair," I agreed, while thinking that at least Kramer would've gotten a taste of his own fiery medicine in hell.
Bones gave Elisabeth a long, speculative look. "Know quite a few details about his death, do you?"
Elisabeth met his gaze. In her half-hazy state, her eyes were medium blue, making me wonder if they had been as dark an indigo as Tate's when she was alive.
"Yes, I'm the one who spooked his horse," she replied defensively, oblivious to the pun in her words. "I wanted revenge for what he'd done to me, and to put a stop to the deaths of more women in the town he was traveling to."
"Good for you," I said at once. If she'd expected judgment, she hadn't heard much about me. Or Bones. "Wish I could shake your hand."
"Too right," Bones said, raising his whiskey in salute.
Elisabeth stared at both of us for several seconds. Then, very slowly, she rose and floated over, holding out her hand to me.
I shifted self-consciously. Guess she didn't know what a metaphorical statement was. Then I stuck out my hand, reminding myself that this was no different than all the other times I'd let ghosts pass through my flesh in greeting. But when her hand closed over mine, that usual tingling feeling followed by my fingers poking right through her didn't happen. Unbelievably, an icy-cold grip squeezed back with the same firmness and consistency as my own flesh.
"Son of a bitch!" I exclaimed, jumping to my feet. My cat hissed and leapt to the side of the couch, miffed at being unseated.
Elisabeth suddenly stood before me in vibrant color, like she'd been switched from being broadcast in a fuzzy channel to high def. Her hair, which I'd thought had been a nondescript brown, shone with rich auburn highlights, and her eyes were so deep blue that they looked like the ocean at midnight. Her cheeks even had a pink flush to them, highlighting a complexion that could only be described as peaches and cream.
"Bloody hell," Bones muttered, standing also. His hand shot out to grasp Elisabeth's arm, his expression mirroring my shock as his fingers closed around solid flesh instead of passing through vaporous energy.
"I told you some of my kind were stronger than others," Fabian murmured from behind Elisabeth.
You weren't kidding, were you? I thought numbly, unable to stop myself from squeezing Elisabeth's very cold, very firm fingers to verify once more that she was really solid.
But soon after I did, I felt a pop of energy in the air, like an invisible balloon had burst. Pins and needles broke out across my skin while the hand I'd been clasping vanished. In the next instant, Elisabeth's appearance dulled back into muted colors, and the arm Bones had been holding melted under his grip, leaving his fingers curled-like mine were-around nothing more than a transparent outline of flesh that was no longer there.
"The longest I can merge into solid form is a few minutes, but it is very draining," Elisabeth said, as if what she'd done wasn't incredible enough. "Yet Kramer is stronger than I am."
I felt like my brain was still playing catch-up from everything I'd just witnessed. "Kramer? You said he died centuries ago."
"He did," Elisabeth replied with frightening grimness. "Yet every All Hallows' Eve, he walks."
If a pin had dropped in the room, it would have shattered the sudden silence with the same effect as a bomb. I had a good idea of what Elisabeth meant by "he walks" but because it was too far-fetched for me to conceive of, I had to make sure.
"You're saying that after the homicidal asshat died, Kramer became a ghost who could walk around in solid flesh every Halloween?"
Elisabeth's brow furrowed in confusion at asshat, but she addressed the rest of my query without hesitation.
"As far as I know, it has only been the past few decades that Kramer has been able to manifest flesh for an entire evening."