It was a heatherheart funeral, except instead of a bar they were at Ralph and Didi’s house. Just Didi’s house now. Not our house, she thought. My house. She was standing in the kitchen, staring at all the food. Tradition said it should have been casseroles and cobblers, but heatherhearts can’t cook worth a damn so she was staring at a sea of packaged food. Most of it would go bad before she could get to it, but it was the thought. At least she didn’t have to figure out who owned which casserole dish.
Didi flinched as pain wracked her right wrist. Funny, considering everything from the elbow down had been bitten off. Lost her husband and her arm to the same damnable thing. Hilarious.
If she looked behind her, at the breakfast nook, she could see Ralph sitting there. Smoking his pipe, reading the newspaper or some heavy leather book about some kind of magic. If she looked at the stove top, she could see Ralph standing there. Smoking and making grits, or gravy, or that gumbo recipe she never did get him to tell her. Lost, now. Like her arm. If she looked at the wall with the phone, she could see Ralph pacing there. Getting details on a job or just chatting, he’d always be pacing, going in one direction far enough to stretch out the cord before coming back the other way.
Ralph was everywhere. And this was just the kitchen. She stared at the bowl of mashed potatoes she knew had come from the market down the way, listened to the others in the house mourning and laughing, and only had one thought.
As soon as my arm is healed I’m going back out there.
“Didi, get down!”
She was still fumbling with her dagger, trying to get it right in her left hand, when she felt the bolt whizz inches above her head. It struck the gangly vampire that had been rushing her right between the ribs. He was dust and bones before he could fall to the ground.
Panting, Didi let herself fall the rest of the way. The dagger clattered next to her. She was right handed. She had known some things were going to take a while to get used to. She hadn’t thought that everything would take a while to get used to. Even just pulling a dagger from a leg sheath and settling it right in her hand was work.
Kokoro knelt down next to her, laying the crossbow gently onto the pavement. They were in the middle of a small parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Whatever the lot was supposed to be for had never been built. Lit only by the headlights of her car across the lot, Didi could still see the look on Kokoro’s face.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Let me help you up.”
“I can do it.”
She didn’t mean to snap. Emotions were still high from the fight. She got herself to her feet and then bent to pick up the dagger. The new end of her right arm ached.
“Guess I need more practice,” Didi said. “Why are you limping?”
Kokoro’s smile was forced. “One of them got a hit in, right here. It’s nothing to worry about.”
But it was. Kokoro knew it. Didi knew it. Three vampires and Kokoro had killed all three. Had to. Because Didi couldn’t get it together.
I can get it together, she thought as they made their paces to the car. I just need more practice. That’s all. More practice.
She’d stopped practicing a couple of weeks earlier. What was the point when no one wanted to work with you, anyway? Couldn’t work by herself. Without her right arm she couldn’t even drive. That time out with Kokoro had been the last. No one had called her for help. The case she had found, she had called Bobbie about, thinking they’d work it together. By the end of the call Bobbie was on the job and Didi was staying home.
Ralph was everywhere. Not as a ghost, thank the merciful gods, but just as memories. She was practically living in the den. It was the one room he was almost never in, because it had been her room. Sewing and knitting. She just couldn’t look at the door, or she’d see him leaning up against the frame ready to ask what she wanted for dinner.
Dinner was soup from a can. She’d gotten one of those electric can openers. She was thinking about killing herself that weekend.
Halfway through the soup the phone started ringing, and Didi was relieved to be able to walk away from it.
“Didi? It’s Tony? You doing okay?”
“I’m doing fine,” Didi lied. “You calling just to check up on me?”
“Actually, no. I’m in the middle of this case-”
Didi’s irritation turned to excitement. “You need me somewhere?”
“No, not here. I’m all the way out in Lincoln, anyway. But I’m stuck. It’s a cryptid, for sure, but I can’t tell quite what I’m dealing with. And I remembered Ralph had that book, on the Pacific Northwest? I was hoping you could look into for me, hopefully tell me what the hell I’m chasing here before I catch up to it.”
Didi knew what book he was talking about. It was up in Ralph’s library, along with a couple more that might have helped. She told him to hold on while she put the phone down, and she raced to get paper and pen from one of the kitchen drawers. There was no speaker-phone feature, so she put the receiver on its back on the counter and bent down to hear, writing notes in large, scrawling handwriting.
When she went upstairs to get the books, it didn’t even register it was her first time going in that room except for the vague notion she needed to dust.
“Really sorry for the imposition,” Karl said as he walked past Didi into the house. German was leaning on him, hopping on his good foot and wincing.
“Ain’t no imposition and you know it,” Didi said. She shut the door and followed them into the kitchen. “Sit him right there. Just push those books out of the way, Bobbie’s down in Florida dealing with God knows what. I’ve got a couple of rooms upstairs set up for you two. You’re welcome to stay until that ankle heals up right. If it ever does.”
“Oh, don’t say that, Miss Didi,” German moaned, leaning back in his chair. She pulled another chair out and helped Karl get his busted ankle up on it, smiling to herself. Miss Didi, huh?
“That’s what the new ones are calling you,” Karl said later, as the two of them sat on the porch. Spring was turning into an early summer, and the heat was lingering already even after the sun had dipped behind the trees. German was inside, soaking in a bath. He was twenty-one, and he looked like a baby. When had twenty year olds turned into babies?
“German is, anyway. And Esther. I hear Jimmy’s got a new partner, don’t know what they’re calling you.”
Didi grunted. “If they even know about me.”
“They all know about you,” Karl said, looking out toward the driveway. “We didn’t just forget about you. It was just…hard, is all. We live in our grief every day, but I think we forget how to manage someone else’s.”
She sipped on her lemonade. “It wasn’t losing Ralph. We all lose partners here and there. It was losing my arm. No one knew what to do with me because of that. But it’s okay,” she said, seeing the panic in his eyes. She patted his leg. “I didn’t know what to do with myself either.”
There hadn’t been this many people at her house since October. More tonight, even. She gave everyone plenty of notice. Her old farmhouse was just about bursting at the seams, their cars parked along the long dirt driveway, everyone doubling up on rooms, taking couches in the living room and the basement.
The music was loud. The smells of the grills going in the back wafted all around the house and through it. The books had all been put away, back in the library, so no one would drunkenly spill a bottle over one. No one needed any help that weekend, anyway. They were all there.
This was the first Fourth of July the heatherhearts would spend at Miss Didi’s house, but not the last.