GRAVE VISIONS: An Alex Craft Novel
The first time I raised a shade for profit, my client fainted. Since then, I’ve tried to better prepare clients for their encounter with the dead.
It doesn’t always work.
“You son of a bitch,” Maryanne Johnson yelled as she slammed her palm against the edge of my circle. “I knew you were sleeping with her.”
The shade of her late husband didn’t respond. He sat motionless above his grave, his face empty and his gaze distant. That seemed only to irritate the woman more, and she slammed her hand against my circle again.
“Ms. Johnson, calm down. He can’t understand your anger. He’s dead.”
If she heard me, she gave no indication, and I shuddered as she hit the circle again, the impact vibrating through my magic. The circle wouldn’t hold much longer, and if it failed, I’d be standing in the middle of a graveyard with my shields wide-open. Not a good thing.
“If you don’t take a step back, I’m going to have to end the ritual,” I said, moving around the grave so that I partially obscured her view of the shade.
She didn’t listen.
“This is between him and me.” She rummaged through her purse, muttering curses under her breath. When she looked up again, her smile was dark. She lifted a small revolver, leveling it at the shade. “How long were you with that hussy?”
And that’s my cue to end the ritual.
I didn’t repeat the question to the shade, because he would have answered. He would have had no choice. Shades were just memories with no will or consciousness. Matthew Johnson may have kept his mistress a secret during life, but he couldn’t hide the truth in death. And I had the feeling, regardless what his answer might be, it could only make this situation worse.
I didn’t need that.
“Rest now,” I whispered under my breath as I reached out with the part of me that sensed the dead and reversed the flow of magic that gave the shade form. The words weren’t strictly necessary, but I’d used them for so many years, they were now part of my ritual, producing a near Pavlovian response with my magic. The shade dissolved, the life heat I’d imbued in it rushing down the well-worn path of my psyche.
“No. No. Bring him back.” The woman railed against the edge of my circle. “He died too easy the first time.” Without her target of choice visible, she swung the gun in my direction. “I paid for this ritual. Now bring him back.”
I was seeing the land of the dead overlaying reality, but even if the revolver looked rusted and ruined in my sight, I had no doubt it was in fine working order in mortal reality. Ms. Johnson herself might have had enough innate magical ability that my circle stopped her from crossing into my ritual space, but unless her gun was loaded with charmed ammo—doubtful—my circle would do nothing to stop a bullet. Which meant I had to defuse this situation. Fast.
“Ms. Johnson I think—”
She cocked the gun.
Right. One shade coming right up.
I plunged my magic into the unseen corpse and pulled Johnson’s shade free again. He emerged looking exactly the same as the moment he’d died, right down to the bit of tomato soup in his beard.
As soon as the shade appeared, the woman’s rage refocused on her deceased husband. The bullet she fired passed through the shade with no effect, but that didn’t diminish her fury. She fired off two more shots and I crept to the edge of my circle, trying not to attract attention as I dialed the police.
I seriously needed to start screening my clients better.
“Alex, tell me you didn’t sleep here last night?”
I jerked upright at the question and my chair rolled away from my desk. The coins I’d been analyzing before I’d nodded off scattered; several rolling over the side of the desk to fall with loud plinks onto the floor. I frowned at the sound and blinked bleary eyes as I tried to focus on the speaker.
Rianna, my once-lost-now-found best friend and business partner, stood in the doorway of my office, her arms crossed over her chest as her green gaze swept over first me and then the mess that comprised my desk. At her side, the barghest who acted as her constant shadow huffed through his large jowls and shook his shaggy head.
“Morning,” I said around a yawn. My neck and back ached—no doubt from sleeping in a chair—and I stretched, trying to work out the kinks. “What time is it?”
“A little after eight. You have a . . .” She pointed to her temple and I placed a hand to the side of my face.
One of the coins clung to my skin. I peeled it off, feeling the slightest tingle of a spell in the metal. Great, one magic coin in the whole lot and I’d slept on it. Of course, maybe it would do me some good. The spell felt like a fortune charm and goodness knew I could use a little luck.
A glance over my desk turned up a blank form. I taped the coin in the provided box and jotted down my initial analysis. I’d do a more in-depth check on the spell later.
After setting down my pen, I looked up to discover Rianna still standing in my doorway, her expression somewhere between concern and disapproval.
“What? I had a lot to do.” I waved a hand to the mess of coins and forms. She cocked one dark eyebrow, clearly unconvinced. With a sigh, I slipped out of my chair and focused on gathering the escaped coins. Even through the solid wood of the desk, I could feel the weight of her stare.
“Oh, yes,” she said, drawing out the words for emphasis. “That looks like an important case. One so pressing, it warranted working through the night.”
I didn’t answer. Rianna and I both had our private investigator licenses, and as grave witches, our specialty was finding answers for our clients by questioning the dead. Analyzing charmed coins didn’t exactly fall within the typical Tongues for the Dead case description, but peering into the land of the dead to raise shades did nasty things to the eyes. So, I’d been searching out cases that wouldn’t make me blind before my thirtieth birthday. It didn’t pay nearly as well as raising shades, but it covered some bills without burning out my vision.
“My last client got arrested before paying for her ritual,” I said, as if recouping the income justified working overtime on a simple spell-identification case we both knew wasn’t pressing.
We also both knew exactly why I hadn’t gone home last night. He had a name.
The Winter Queen’s knight was currently crashing in my one room loft. Considering we were occasionally lovers, that might have been okay, except that it was the Faerie queen’s royal decree placing him there and saying I suspected her motives was more than an understatement. He suspected them too—which was why he himself had told me never to trust him while he was under her rule. Oh yeah, and he’d told me that while holding me at dagger-point. Just after saying he loved me.
Our relationship was complicated, to say the least. In the two weeks he’d been staying at my place we’d barely spoken, by mutual consent. And besides, I was sort of seeing someone else. Can we say awkward? Yeah.
The office was a better option.
When I remained quiet, Rianna joined me on the floor. Together we gathered the coins, the only sound the clicking of my dog’s nails on the wood as he moseyed over to see what we were doing—and if we had food.
Rianna shot a glance at the small Chinese crested and frowned again. “PC’s with you, so I take it you never planned to go home last night? I thought you arranged to stay in Caleb’s guest room until you could figure out what to do about Falin.”
“I did.” And it wasn’t so much that I’d worked it out as that Caleb, my landlord, had insisted. The problem was . . . “The guest room isn’t soundproof and I don’t think Caleb and Holly ever sleep.”
“So they’ve officially hooked up?”
“Who knows if it’s official, but they go at it like bunnies.”
Rianna gave me a sympathetic glance as she passed me the last of the coins. “I’d invite you to my place, but . . .”
But she lived in an enchanted castle in Faerie. Well, actually my enchanted castle, but I’d never been inside it. I’d inherited the castle in a rather grisly way and the whole thing creeped me out. Besides, I’d have to pass through the winter court to reach limbo, where the castle currently resided, and with the Winter Queen determined to add me to her court, it wasn’t worth the risk of her finding a reason to detain me. So yeah, not currently a viable option for a place to crash.
I shrugged. “I’ll figure out something.” Climbing to my feet, I dumped the coins into a magic-dampening bag—my client thought they were cursed, and though I’d found no evidence of any malicious spells, better safe than sorry—before straightening. Rianna rose slower, levering herself up with the edge of my desk. She teetered when she reached her full height. I looked at her then, really looked at her.
When I’d first rescued Rianna, she was a wasting shadow of her former self, but in the last few months, she’d reclaimed a soft glow of health. The glow was missing today, her cheeks pale and dark smudges ringed her eyes.
“Are you feeling okay? I’m the one who passed out at her desk, but you look worse than I feel.” Though I was definitely feeling the weeks of gradual sleep deprivation.
Rianna gave me a feeble smile before shrugging. “I think maybe I caught something.”
“I didn’t know changelings could catch a cold.”
Another shrug. “Apparently. It must be going around. Ms. B. won’t be in today. She said something about the garden gnome being unwell.”
If I wasn’t frowning before, I definitely was now. When I’d inherited the castle, I’d also sort of acquired the people—well, two fae and one changeling—living in the castle. Like I said, creepy. The garden gnome I’d never met, but Ms. B was a brownie who’d tended the castle for longer than anyone seemed to remember. She’d taken a liking to me and recently decided to claim the roll of receptionist at Tongues for the Dead—I hadn’t had a say in the matter. She was gruff on the phone and some of our clients balked at her diminutive size and inhuman appearance, but I’d gotten used to having her around the office. I’d never heard of a fae getting sick, but honestly, despite the fact the fae had come out of the mushroom ring seventy years earlier, or the fact I’d recently discovered I was more fae than human, I didn’t know all that much about the day-to-day life of fae.
“Well, I hope he recovers quickly. And you too,” I said, my frown deepening. Rianna was all but leaning on the barghest. The large doglike fae stared at her, concern clear in his red-rimmed eyes. “Do you have any rituals scheduled today?”
She shook her head, swaying slightly with the movement.
“Good. Maybe you should keep it that way.”
She gave me a half nod, as if completing the movement would have taken too much energy. “I think I’ll go sit down.”
“Do you need a healer? Or a doctor?”
“No, I just . . .” She trailed off as she turned, swaying a moment before taking a breath and putting one foot very purposefully in front of the other. “This’ll pass in a minute. It’s happened a couple of times in the last week. Let me rest a moment.”
I walked around my desk and helped her into one of the client chairs. She collapsed gratefully, but I didn’t get a chance to question her because my cell phone buzzed on my desk and I had to rush back around to grab it.
The displayed number wasn’t one of my saved contacts, but I recognized the Central Precinct extension, so I guessed the caller. It had been a while since I’d heard from my favorite homicide detective, and our last few encounters hadn’t gone all that well, so I was relieved he was finally calling.
“Hey, John,” I said, tucking the phone between my shoulder and ear and heading back to Rianna.
“Craft?” a gruff male voice asked from the other side of the phone.
It wasn’t John.
I stopped in my tracks and briefly considered playing it off as a wrong number. If this was a client, professionalism was way past gone. But there was something familiar about the voice, I just couldn’t put a name to it. After an uncomfortably long pause, I confirmed he’d reached the right number.
“This is Detective Jenson. I need you at the morgue in an hour.”
He disconnected as soon as the last word escaped his mouth, leaving me no time to accept or deny his request. I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it like it might morph into something venomous. Because of my—largely unexplained—involvement in several major cases, John and I had suffered a falling out. But his partner Jenson? We’d never been close. And since my fae heritage had manifested, he’d been downright hateful toward me. Well, most of the time at least. It had been made clear to me that the police department wouldn’t be hiring me for a case anytime soon, so why did Jenson want me at the morgue?
“Alex?” Rianna made my name a question, concern mixing with curiosity in her voice.
I shook my head as I redialed the number Jenson had called from. The line rang four times before going to voicemail. Frowning, I ended the call without leaving a message.
“Well,” I said, shoving the phone in my back pocket. “I either have a job . . . or I’m about to walk into a trap.”
Thanks for reading this excerpt. I hope you've enjoyed the first chapter of GRAVE VISIONS, the fourth Alex Craft Novel. Grave Visions will be available wherever books are sold February 2nd, 2016. Enjoy!
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