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The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother's medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn'tparticularly when we crossed paths on the job.
"Ms. Craft, this is beyond unacceptable." Henry Baker accented the statement with a plump fist slicing the air before his face. Behind him loomed Death.
Eighteen years of practice kept my gaze off the jeans-clad soul collector and on my client, whose face darkened from cherry red to bruised purple. I fingered the spray of funeral lilies at my side, dreading the direction this conversation was taking.
"Our contract stipulated I raise the shade. I did."
Baker swatted aside my protest. "You promised me results."
"I said you could ask your questions." I leaned against his father's coffin. It wasn't exactly respectful, but I'd just shoved the senior Baker's shade back into his body two hours before his funeral. Respect had nothing to do with this job. But hey, a paycheck is a paycheck.
Baker turned on his heel and stomped across the aisle. I waited. I knew what was coming. Baker was a fortune huntera failed one at thatand I'd worked with his like before.
Death followed in Baker's wake. He exaggerated each heavy step, mocking the chubby man's jerky movements. All the while, a grin clung to his lips, his dark eyes never leaving me.
This had better be a social visit.I met his gaze, pleading, warningI didn't care whichhim to leave my client alone. He flashed a row of perfectly straight teeth, which didn't tell me anything.
Baker continued to pace.
Well, best get this part over quickly."According to our contract, you can pay by cash, check, or money order. Will you need a receipt?"
Baker jerked to a stop. His eyes bulged, the skin hanging from his cheeks shaking. "I refuse to pay for this."
Here we go.I shoved away from the casket. "Listen, mister, you wanted a shade raised. I raised a shade. If dear old dad didn't say what you wanted, well, that's your problem, not mine. We have a binding agreement and if"
He dropped his fist, and his eyes flew wide, startled.
That was simpler than I expected.I let out a breath to purge the rant from my tongue and pasted on my professional smile. "Now, will you need a receipt?"
Baker gripped his chest and wheezed. Once. Twice. Then, in slow motion, his neck twisted and his gaze moved over his shoulder. The amusement melted from Death's face.
Angel of Death, Soul Collector, Grim Reaperwhatever you called him, most people saw him only once. He strolled forward, and Baker stumbled back a step.
Crap.I jumped from the casket platform. "Don't."
Death reached into Baker's pudgy torso, and the color leached from my client's face. He swayed. Death stepped back, and Baker blinked once more before crumpling.
A scream rang from the corner of the room, followed by the clatter of chairs. The funeral director sprinted up the aisle, Baker's wife and teenage son behind him. His assistant, her eyes already glistening, fumbled a phone from her waistband.
"Nine-one-one," she said as Baker the thirdand last remainingpumped his father's chest. Poor kid.
I crept away from the commotion. Giving the family space was all I could really do. Death had already collected the soulthere wasn't any way to revive Henry Baker now. Not that I was going to be the one to tell his family that fact.
Death leaned against the far wall, his muscular arms crossed over his wide chest. He smiled, all devilish innocence as his dark hair fell forward around his chin.
I glared at him and scooped my purse from the floor. I couldn't fault him for collecting Baker's soulafter all, he had a job to dobut…;
"You could have waited until I got paid."
He shrugged. "Didn't seem like he planned to pay you."
True. Maybe. The frantic huddle around Baker's body churned.This is so going to be bad for business.
I shoved my hand in my purse and fished along the bottom. I ignored the billfoldI knew it was empty. Under the tube of chalk for casting my circle, a ceramic ritual knife, my cell phone, and my license, I discovered three pennies, a dime, a crumpled foil wrapper, and a paper clip.
Death glanced at the treasure spread over my palm. "Planning on buying a gumball?"
"Bus fare for the trip home."
We both frowned at my palm. Thirteen cents wasn't going to cut it. But an emergency vet bill had wiped out everything I had. Until a job actually paid out, I was broke.
"Aren't you working the Amanda Holliday trial with the DA?" Death asked.
I dumped the change into my purse. "The shade won't take the stand until tomorrow, and then I have to wait for the City, or whoever, to cut the check."
I was giving the prosecution their star witness, because for once, being dead wasn't going to stop the victim from accusing her murderer. So far the headlines were mixed on whether I was the "voice of the silenced" or the "corrupter of the dead," but one thing was certain: it was big news.
More important, as long as the defense didn't rip me apart, I might end up on Nekros City's permanent payroll instead of being just an occasional consultant for the police. Then I wouldn't have to deal with fortune hunters like Henry Baker.
"You staying for this?" Death nodded toward Baker's body.
Baker's son still pumped the dead man's chest, fighting to reclaim his father, but the new widow had abandoned hope. She clung to the funeral director, who steered her toward the seats in the front row. I didn't see the assistant.
"Yeah, I'm staying. I wouldn't want to be accused of fleeing the scene."
Death shrugged, his black-clad shoulders lifting slightly. As they dropped again he vanished. I hated when he did that. One minute here; the next gone. He'd turn up again. He always did.
In my purse, Queen's Freddie Mercury belted out the line "We will rock you," and I cringed. The widow's gaze snapped to me, her mascara-ringed eyes hard.
Maybe not the best ringtone for the current situation.
Turning away, I dug my phone out and glanced at the display. I didn't know the number.Let this be a job, not a bill collector.I flipped it open. "You've reached Tongues for the Dead. This is Alex Craft."
I pulled the phone from my ear and frowned at the display. I still didn't know the number.Who would call me
"Alexis," the female voice asked again. "Are you there? I need your help."
Her affirmative was a choked sob. My sister never called me. What was I supposed to say to her?
"What do you need?" I asked, and then grimaced. The question had sounded a lot more sensitive in my head.
"Have you seen the paper?"
Casey's voice caught in her throat, and it took her two tries to whisper, "They found Teddy."
The angry click of high heels rang across the room, heading in my direction.Uh-oh.I covered the mouth of the phone with my palm as I turned. The new widow was a head shorter than me, but twice as wide, and right now it looked as if that extra weight was pure mean anger.
"You did this." Her finger drilled into my arm.
Oh goodshe's found someone to blame. Me.
Clearing my throat, I ducked my head and said, "I'm very sorry for your loss."
She continued as though she hadn't heard me. "I told him not to hire a witch. I told him." Her voice turned shrill, and she collapsed into the wall. "I told him."
I backed away, allowing the director to ease Mrs. Baker onto a seat. In the distance, sirens hurtled down the street.
The phone squawked in my hand. "Alexis, are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here. You said something about a Teddy."
The line was silent long enough that I wondered if she'd hung up; then she said, "Theodore Coleman? Surely you've heard of him. The police found his body last night. I need to know who shot him and where he's been these past two weeks."
I almost dropped the phone. Shehadto be kidding. Vice presidential hopeful Governor Theodore Coleman? A restaurant's surveillance camera had caught the shooting, but then Coleman had disappeared. If his body had been found, it would be a big case. Considering Coleman's political affiliation with the Humans First Partyand the party's open disdain for witchesmy interference wouldn't be appreciated. "Casey, I don't think"
"Please." Her voice broke again. "The police think Daddy is involved. They've been by the house several times already."
I rolled my eyes. The police could look, but nothing stuck to Lieutenant Governor George Caine.Well, I guess he's actually the governor now.Our father had deep pockets and a wide reach. After all, he'd buried my name change from Caine to Craftand the fact his daughter was a practicing witchso deep the media hadn't managed to dig it up during his campaign. Besides, I'd barely spoken to him since I'd turned eighteen. I saw him more in the paper and on TV campaigning for the Humans First Party than in person. Why would I get involved now? "Casey, this really isn't"
"Please. This is what you doright? You're some sort of magic eye?"
My jaw clenched. "Magic eye" was slang for a witch with a private detective license who did very little "real" investigative work. While I might not trail leads through dark alleys, and my investigations typically went only as far as questioning the deceased, I did find answers for my clients.
I took a deep breath and forced a smile to spread across my face, to seep into my voice. "I'm sorry. I can't help you." The words came out sickly sweet, but I didn't talk to my sister enough for her to recognize the tone. "I can't get involved in an ongoing police investigation."
"I can pay you."
I frowned at the phone. Last I'd heard, Casey had bought into the antiwitch position of the Humans First Party. If she was willing to actually hire me, she must be truly worried.
"Please, Alexis. Please. I need your help."
"Okay." Damn. I was working for my little sister, but I'd look into the case. See what I could find. With a sigh, I rattled off my standard legal spiel, quoted my rates, and told Casey to expect an e-mailed copy of my contract later that afternoon. As I spoke, the sirens hurtled closer, and I shouldered my purse with its thirteen cents, gum wrapper, and paper clip.
"When will you talk to the ghost?"
Ghost?I suppressed a groan but didn't bother correcting her. After all these years, if she hadn't grasped the fact that ghosts were cognizant, wandering souls, but shades were just memories, she clearly hadn't been paying me any attention. Instead I said, "If you want to be present to question Coleman's shade, we'll have to wait until the police release the body and it's in the ground. If you want faster answers, I might be able to question him at the morgue, but you can't attend the ritual."
The line was silent except for soft, ragged breaths on the other side. I gave her a moment to think as the sound of sirens drew closer.
"The morgue." Casey's voice dropped in pitch. "How soon will you get back to me?"
Getting access to a high-profile body in an open case would be difficult, but I'd built connections during my three years of running Tongues for the Dead. "I have a friend at the station. I'll give him a call, but I can't make any promises. I'll contact you tonight if I get access to the morgue today. Otherwise, expect me to check in tomorrow afternoon."
Wrapping up the call, I saved Casey's number and moved to get the door for the paramedics. The ambulance pulled to a stop, and a black and white cop car jetted to the curb behind it. Goodmaybe the cops could give me a ride. The chill of Mrs. Baker's glare crawled across my shoulders. I wanted to catch a ride in the front seat of the cop carnot in the back of the wagon, under arrest.
As the paramedics rushed up the stairs I scrolled through the contacts on my phone until I reached the number for my friendly neighborhood homicide detective. A gruff voice answered on the third ring.
"Hey, John," I said as I stepped clear of the emergency workers. "I need a favor."
The doors to the Nekros City Central Precinct slid open, allowing the sixty-degree air inside to escape. The sweat clinging to my skin from the short walk across the blacktop chilled instantly. Six p.m. and the temperature hadn't dropped under a hundred yet. The South in the summeryou had to love it.
I swiped the escaped blond curls plastered to my face back into a messy ponytail and turned to wave to the two officers who'd given me a ride. I hadn't been arrested in connection to Baker's death, but there had been some tense moments back at the funeral parlor. Luckily, when Tamara, the medical examiner, arrived, she'd been able to confirm the absence of magical influence on the body during her initial examination, which freed me to follow up with John at the morgue. My favorite homicide detective had agreed to get me in to see Coleman's body, but only if I did a favor for him in return. In this case, "a favor" translated into raising an extra shade.
The cops turned out of the parking lot, and I stepped between the automatic doors and headed for the security check. I dug my wallet and ceremonial knife from my purse before dropping the bag on the conveyer belt. As my purse disappeared under the X-ray machine I put the knife in the basket the guard gave me. Then I handed the basket and my walletopen to display my PI license and my magical certification issued by the Organization for Magically Inclined HumansOMIH for shortto the guard. He glanced over my credentials before confiscating the knife, which I'd pretty much expected. Turning, I walked through the metal detector. No issue there, but the spell detector beeped loudly as I stepped through.
The security guard motioned me to stop and grabbed a spellchecker wand. "Hands out, palms up."
I did as he instructed, tapping my toe inside my boot as he waved the wand with its rudimentary detection spell over me. The glass bead on the tip glowed green as it moved over my right hand and the obsidian ring I stored raw magic in. Green meant magic, but not an active spell. On my other wrist, the bead glowed yellow as it traced over my shield braceletactive magic, but not a malicious charm. Malicious spells, even inactive ones, made the bead glow red. The bead didn't turn red.
With a nod, the guard motioned for me to drop my hands as he placed the wand back in its stand. I grabbed my purse, my wallet, and the ticket I'd need to reclaim my knife when I left. Then I made my way to the elevators.
Central Precinct was an austere but multipurpose building situated in the middle of downtown Nekros in what people tended to refer to as the judicial block because of the proximity of the statehouse, the state supreme court, and Central Precinct. Though it was not overly apparent from the back of the building, where I'd entered, the main floor housed Nekros City's central police station as well as the undersheriff's offices. Upper levels of the building boasted the central crime labs and the district attorney's suite, but I wasn't headed up. The basement level contained the medical examiner's administrative offices and her place of powerthe morgue.
John Matthews, the best homicide detective Nekros City could ever ask forat least, in my opinion; but then, he was also a good friendwaited outside the main morgue door. His grizzly bear-sized form looked uncomfortable hunched over in the orange plastic chair, but his chin touched his chest, his eyes closed.Apparently not too uncomfortable for a nap.Wrinkles creased deeper wrinkles in his brown jacket, so he must have worked though the nightMaria would have never let him leave the house so disheveled.
"You all right there, John?" I asked as I clipped my visitor badge to the strap of my tank top. I didn't yellat least, not quite. Still, my voice reverberated off the walls, the echo making me wince.
John's head jerked up, and the report in his lap hit the floor, pages scattering. "Alex? Geez, don't do that."
Okay, in hindsight, maybe I should have woken him more quietly.
I knelt, gathering pages. Several photos had also scattered, and I grabbed one that floated under the chair. A pale shoulder lay in sharp contrast to the black garbage bags dominating the picture. A limp hand had escaped the dark plastic; the long wrist was delicate, feminine.
I handed the photo and pages to John. "Body dump?"
He nodded, rubbing his palms against the dark shadows under his eyes. "Third girl this month with the same MO."
Third?The cops must have been keeping this case very quiet for the press not to have picked up on three connected murders. I itched to get a better look at the case filemorbid curiosity might have been a personality flaw, but I talked to the dead for a living. I didn't press Johnat least not yet. He'd tell me as much as he was comfortable telling. I nodded at the file. "She the extra I'm raising?"
He nodded. "Yeah. My black-bag special."
As in a Jane Doe."I'll take a guess that you have no leads from the first two bodies?"
"Wouldn't be a fair trade if I did." His tone was light, but his shoulders slumped forward. "You got a pen?"
I pulled out the pen I'd pilfered from the desk jockey who'd signed me in to the basement level. John thumbed through the pages on his lap, separating documents from the case file. I signed the normal assortment of nondisclosure agreements and official paperwork. My standard rate was crossed out; the words "pro bono" were scrawled in red pen. I bit my lip as I initialed the change. Free hurt, but John was doing me a huge favor by letting me see Coleman's body. Having an official case I was working on legitimized my trip to the morgue. Didn't make the big zero feel any better, though.
I handed the signed documents to John, and he tucked them away before pushing open the morgue door. The fluorescents buzzed over our heads, mixing with the scrape of our footsteps on the linoleum floor. Trays of sterile equipment surrounded the two unoccupied autopsy stations on either side of the room. In the back waited the cold roomor corpserator, as I called it. Beside the cold room, yellow light filtered from the window looking into the medical examiner's office.
The office door opened, and a shaggy-haired intern in a white coat emerged. "Detective Matthews, Miss Craft. Can I help you with something?" His eyes flicked from John to me.
Miss Craft?I frowned at him. Tommy Stewart had spent the past year as the medical examiner's intern, and he hadn't called me by my last name since his second week. Granted, we'd gone out for drinks a month ago, and, well, one thing had led to another, but it hadn't been anything serious. Or at least, I hadn't thought so.
"Tommy," John said, "how about you take a cigarette break."
It wasn't a question.
Tommy shoved his hands in his pockets and rolled his shoulders back. "There a body you need?"
"I got it covered." John waited. "Now, how about that break . . . ?"
Tommy shook his head. "Detective Andrews said"
John cut him off. "I'll take care of Andrews."
Tommy's mouth twisted, his eyes pinching, but all he said was "Righta cigarette break."
He jerked into motion but paused at the door. His gaze landed on me, the look hard.Boy, do I know how to kill a friendship.I sighed as the door swished closed behind him.
"Who's Detective Andrews?" I asked as John disappeared into the freezer.
He didn't even glance back. "Don't worry about it."
I rocked on my heels as I waited. Several white sheet-topped gurneys were visible beyond the thick doorframebusy week at the morgue. A translucent figure walked among the bodies, muttering to himself. The baggy jeans and flannel shirt he wore were colorless, shimmering with each of his steps. If I had dropped my shields, I could have made out the color of his hair and heard what he was saying, but I wasn't that curious. Ghosts, at least true wandering souls, were rare, but as a whole they were an obnoxious bunch. After all, it took a severely stubborn personality to withstand Death's attempt to collect a soul. Unfortunately, most ghosts I'd encountered hadn't been pleased with their success. They were just pissed that their struggles hadn't kept them alive.
I must have made a noise, because the ghost looked up and saw me watching. He pushed a pair of shimmering glasses higher up his nose, then flipped me off.Jerk.I returned the rude gesture, and his mouth fell open. I was no lip reader, but the slow question "You can see me?" was obvious enough that I nodded.
His next words weren't nearly as easy to decipher as his lips dashed into motion. His hands flitted through the air, accenting his silent speech with extravagant motions.Greatan excitable ghost. How long has he been dead?Most ghosts took a while to realize that no one could see them. Well, no one but grave witches such as me.
I might have dropped my shields just a smidgen to hear what the ghost was saying, but John chose that moment to reemerge. Actually, the gurney he was pushing emerged first, sliding through the ghost's shimmering form. The ghost's mouth snapped closed as he glanced down at the gurney passing through his hips.
I looked away before John stepped through the ghost as well. It was disturbing to watch things like that.
"Which is this?" I asked, tossing a nod at the lumpy form under the sheet on the gurney.
"How about you tell me." John stopped in the center of the room, and his mustache twitched as he smiled. "So, you're going to make it to dinner tonight?"
Oh yeah, it's Tuesday.I nodded. "Can you give me a ride?"
"Course." He pushed out a second gurney, this one with a body still in a black transport bag. The ghost was nowhere in sight. John parked the gurney beside the first. "Maria is making pork chops. A couple of the boys from the station will be joining us."
My stomach gurgled, and I squeezed my abs, trying to silence it.Way to go, stomach; let everyone know I skipped breakfast. And lunch.
I set my purse by my feet and dug out the black lipstick tube I carried my oil chalk in. Crouching, I pressed the waxy chalk to the linoleum floor. I dragged it, duckwalking, around the two gurneys.
As I drew my circle John adjusted the digital equipment. The camera was meant for recording autopsies, but John borrowed it whenever I raised shades for a case.
"Heard you might be a murder suspect."
I dropped the chalk. "You what? No, I" The tube rolled toward the drain in the floor, and I scrambled after it. "I mean, the widow thought I…; but Tamara cleared me."
John's mustache twitched so fiercely with his attempt not to smile, it nearly walked off his face. I frowned, and a deep-bellied laugh erupted from him.
It wasn't funny.
Still, he had an infectious laugh. I found myself grinning as I finished my circle.
"Seriously though," I said, capping my chalk. "If Tamara hadn't been the medical examiner at the scene, I could be in holding right now. Waiting for the autopsy." Being held under suspicion of death magic wasnotsomething I wanted. Nulls already had enough trouble understanding the difference between death magic and grave magicmy unfortunate specialty. Luckily, as well as being the lead ME, Tamara was a certified sensitive. She could locate a spell quicker and more accurately than any spellchecker charm, and unlike a charm, she could usually discern the purpose of the spell. The only magic she'd been able to sense at the scene had been the ritual I'd used to raise the shade and charms to keep the flowers fresh. No spell had been involved in Baker's death.
With my circle complete, I stood. Recapping my chalk, I tucked it away.
John flipped a switch, and the camera turned on. "Ready?"
I nodded, closed my eyes, and cleared my mind. The obsidian ring on my right hand throbbed with the raw energy I'd stored. I mentally tapped into it, drawing out a spindly string of magic. There wasn't much. I hadn't had time to recharge the ring after the ritual for Henry Baker, but there was enough. I channeled the energy into the wax circle, and it sprang to life, buzzing with pale blue power behind my eyelids.
Now for the fun part.
Releasing my connection to the magic stored in the obsidian ring, I unclasped the thin silver charm bracelet on my wrist and shoved it in my pocket. The extra defenses the charms gave me vanished. The chill of the grave pressed against my mental shields like icy water lapping at the edge of my consciousness. I drew in a deep breath and sank deeper into a trance. The grave essence lifting from the corpses within my circle persisted, thundering against my mind. Beckoning. Taunting. Demanding.
I dropped my shields.
A racking wind rushed through me. The clammy touch of the grave slid against my skin, beneath my flesh.
I opened my eyes.
My vision had narrowed, leaving the world covered in a patina of gray. Flakes of rust covered the stainless-steel gurneys on each side of me. The threadbare and tattered linen sheet covering the body on the gurney to my left rippled in the breeze blowing through me. The linoleum floor under my boots had worn away, and the cement beneath it crumbled. Outside the circle, John's wrinkled jacket was pocked with holes, but he was filled with light, his soul a dazzling shimmer of pale yellow. I looked away.
The wind picked up, filling my ears with its roar and blocking out any other sound. The chill buffeted me, clawing under my skin, into my blood.
I was alive. A being of warmth and breath, not of cold and stillness. Not of death. My life force burned against the chill, warring against the grave essence wriggling into the center of my being. Sweat beaded on my skin even as I shivered.
I needed a reprieve.
The soulless husk in the body bag called to me. I didn't need to guide the power. I stopped fighting it, and my living heat spilled into the waiting corpse. As my heat fled, the chill of the grave sank comfortably into my limbs. The roar of wind stilled. I blinked. I could feel only one body within the circlethe female in the black bag.
I mentally reached for her, my innate magic following the trail my heat had burned. Even filled with my life force, the shade my mind touched was weak, tattered.How could a shade who's never been raised fade so quickly?
My magic trailed along large cuts in the feeble shade. The deep, gaping incisions nearly shredded her to pieces. I'd never felt anything like it.
I poured magic into the corpse, letting my power fill the holes in the broken shade. She still felt frailbarely remembered. But held together with both my heat and power, she was substantial enough to raise.
Taking a deep breath, I gave the shade a gentle push. My power coaxed her from the body, guided her across the chasm separating the living from the dead.
She emerged screaming.