An Alex Craft Novel
After a month of down time, Grave Witch Alex Craft is ready to get back to solving murders by raising the dead. With her love life in turmoil, Alex is eager for the distractions of work. But when her new case forces her to overuse her magic, it might be the last mystery the Grave Witch ever gets to solve...
When I first straddled the chasm between the land of the dead and the world of the living, I accidentally raised the shade of our recently deceased Pekinese. The former champion dog floating around our backyard resulted in my father shipping me off to a wyrd boarding school. Seventeen years later, I still reached across that chasm, but now I got paid to do it.
"That isn't a body, John," I said, staring at the open black bag. "It's a foot." A pale, bloated, waterlogged foot.
John Matthews, personal friend and one of the best homicide detectives in Nekros City, nodded. "It's a left foot, to be precise, and I have two more back at the morgue. What can you tell me?"
I frowned and nudged the toe of my boot at a clump of grass sprouting between chunks of loose gravel. My business cards read: ALEX CRAFT, LEAD PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR AND GRAVE WITCH FOR TONGUES FOR THE DEAD. I was actually the owner and only employee of the firm, but that was beside the point. I raised shades and gave the living a chance to question the dead—for a fee. My work tended to take me to a lot of graveyards, the occasional funeral home, and to the Nekros City morgue. The parking pit for the Sionan Floodplain Nature Preserve was most definitely not my typical working environment. Nor was a single severed appendage my typical job.
"Sorry, John, but I need more than a foot to raise a shade."
"And I need some better news." His shoulders slumped as if he'd deflated. "We've been scouring this swamp for two days and we're turning up more questions than answers. We've got no IDs on the vics, no obvious causes of death, and no primary crime scenes. You sure you can't give me anything?" As he spoke, he shoved the flap on the body bag farther open with the butt of his pen.
The foot lay in a sea of black plastic. The sickly scent of rot filled the humid afternoon air, coating the inside of my nose, my throat. The bloodless skin had sloughed off the exposed ankle, the strips of yellowish flesh shriveling. My stomach twisted and I looked away. I'd leave the physical inspection to the medical examiner—my affinity for the dead was less for the tangible and more for the spectral. Memories hid in every cell of the body. Memories that my grave magic could unlock and give shape as a shade. Of course, that depended on having enough of the body—and thus cells—at my disposal for my magic to fill in the gaps. I didn't need to cast a magic circle and begin a ritual to know I couldn't pull a shade from the foot. I could sense that fact, the same way I could sense that the foot had belonged to a male, probably in his late sixties. I could also sense the nasty tangle of spells all but dripping from the decaying appendage.
"The foot is saturated with magic. Some pretty dark stuff from the feel of it," I said, taking a step back from the gurney and the sticky residual magic emanating from the foot. "I'm guessing you already have a team deciphering the spells?"
"Yeah, but so far the anti–black magic unit hasn't reached any conclusions. It would really help if we could question the victim."
But that wasn't going to happen with such a small percentage of the body. "You said you had a matching foot back at the morgue? Maybe if we assemble all the parts, there will be enough to—"
John shook his head. "Dancing jokes aside, unless this guy had two left feet—literally—neither of the other feet belong to him."
Three left feet? That meant at least three victims. "You're thinking serial?"
"Don't say that too loud," John said, his gaze flashing to a passing pair of crime scene technicians headed toward the dense old-growth forest. "No official determination yet, but, yeah, I'm thinking serial." His grizzly bear-sized form sagged further and his mustache twitched as he frowned. The mustache had been a thick red accent to his expressions as long as I'd known him, but in the weeks since he'd woken from a spell-induced coma, slivers of gray had joined the red. He pushed the flap of the body bag closed. "Park rangers found the first foot yesterday morning when they were checking the paths after the recent flooding. We got wardens and cadaver dogs out here, and the second foot turned up. When we found the third, I pulled some strings to hire you as a consultant."
"Do you want me to stick around? Wait and see if your guys find more of the body?"
"Actually"—John rubbed a hand over his head, wiping away the sweat glistening on his spreading bald spot—"I was hoping you'd join the search."
I hesitated. I probably even blanched. Wandering around with my shields down sensing every dead creature most definitely was not my idea of a good—or safe—time.
John didn't miss my pause. "You've located DBs before," he said. DBs as in dead bodies. "And the paperwork you signed covered the possibility of searching the swamp, so you'll be paid for your time."
I opened my mouth to respond—while I might have qualms about opening my psyche to whatever might be in the floodplain, we both knew I'd risk it—but was interrupted before I could answer.
"What's wrong, Craft?" Detective Jenson, John's partner, asked as he stepped around the side of a black SUV. "Don't want to get those tight pants dirty tramping through the swamp? Got another TV appearance to run off to? Or maybe your magic eye license doesn't allow you to do any good old-fashioned legwork."
I glared at him, and I had to unclench my gritted teeth to answer. "Way to be hypocritical, Jenson, insulting me and in the same breath asking me to use magic to help." The term "magic eye" was derogatory slang for a witch PI.
"I'm not asking you for anything." He leaned back on his heels and crossed his arms over his chest. "And I think this city has seen enough of your magic lately, what with the way they keep rebroadcasting that interview with you getting all touchy-feely with a ghost."
"What's wrong? Jealous?" I asked, cocking a hip and tossing curls out of my face. Okay, so I was goading him, but he was being an ass. A few days ago I'd participated in the first studio interview of a ghost, and to keep said ghost visible I'd had to remain in contact with him, but I'd most certainly not gotten "touchy-feely" or any such crap.
John cleared his throat. "That's enough." He glanced between us, then turned to his partner. "Get Alex some hip waders and let the wardens know we'll be joining them."
Jenson sneered at me—an expression I returned—and said, "Sure. Boots for the two-legged corpse hound. I'll get right on that." He disappeared around the side of the SUV.
I stared at the spot where he'd been standing. "What a jerk." Things hadn't always been so antagonistic between us. In fact, we'd almost been friends. Then a month ago his attitude had gone to shit. The change coincided perfectly with John's taking a spelled bullet aimed at me. Coincidence? Doubtful.
"I don't know what's going on between you two," John said, turning back toward me, "but let's not forget we've got three severed feet and no leads. Now, before we go in there, I suggest turning your shirt inside out."
John waved a tech over to take custody of the bagged foot; then he scooped my purse off the ground, where I'd set it earlier. He handed the red bag to me and nodded toward his car.
"The park rangers warned us when we started searching that the local fae delight in leading hikers astray. The unwary can end up wandering through the same patch of land for days. Pixie-led, they call it. Turning your shirt inside out is supposed to confuse their magic."
I glanced down at my tank top, the shirt clinging to me in the afternoon heat. "Are you thinking fae are involved in the murders?"
John's mustache twitched. "That's another thing you shouldn't say too loud."
"Right." I ducked inside John's car to shimmy out of the top. Not that I thought reversing it would really protect me against fae magic. The fae relied mostly on glamour—a belief magic so strong, it could reshape reality, at least temporarily.
By the time I'd re-dressed, Jenson had dropped off a pair of hip waders for me. They were a thick, waterproof one-piece with suspenders and attached boots. I stepped into them, pulling the brown material up over my clothes. They nearly reached my collarbone.
"We aren't seriously planning to wade chest-deep, are we?" I asked as I adjusted the suspender straps.
John, who'd also suited up in a pair of waders, handed me a plastic bottle of water. "Nah. With the speed the water is retreating, we'd be in danger of getting swept away. If you sense the bodies in the deep water, we'll have to send a team out. Ready?"
I nodded and followed him toward the closest path into the floodplain. John collected a couple of officers as we trekked into the forest, and I wasn't the least bit disappointed when Jenson didn't join us. The forest canopy filtered the sun, but the humidity under the trees hung heavy, making the air thick. Sweat coated my skin, and my blond curls clung to my cheeks and neck. I cracked the seal of my water bottle, but took only one long swig—no telling how long we'd be hiking.
"That is where the first foot was found," John said after we'd been walking for half an hour. He nodded ahead of him to where yellow crime tape ringed the path. "The second was found about a quarter mile farther up the path; the third a mile or more to the south. We're not sure yet if the recent flooding unearthed shallow graves or if the bodies were dumped farther upstream and floated into the floodplain, but with the speed the water is retreating, every passing minute increases the chance of our evidence washing away. We need to find those bodies."
And that was my cue.
I unclasped my silver charm bracelet. Among other charms, the bracelet carried the extra shields that helped buffer the excess of grave essence always trying to drag my psyche across the chasm to the land of the dead. Of course, that was the very chasm I now needed to traverse. As soon as the silver charms lost contact with my skin, a frigid wind lifted around me—the chill of the grave clawing at my remaining mental shields. I cracked those shields, imagining the living vines I visualized as my personal mental wall slithering apart, opening small gaps to my psyche.
The world around me lost the rich hues of life as a gray patina covered everything. My vision doubled as I saw both the land of the dead and the land of the living. In my grave-sight, the trees darkened, withering, their thick green leaves turning brown, and the officers' clothing decayed, the cloth becoming threadbare and moth-eaten. Under those mottled rags, their souls shimmered bright yellow. I looked away.
Unfortunately, opening my shields exposed me to more than just the land of the dead. The Aetheric—the plane in which raw magic existed—snapped into focus around me in swirls of brilliant red, vivid blues, and every other color imaginable. The magic twisted, tauntingly close, but I ignored the raw energy. It wasn't supposed to be visible, even with my shields open. Witches didn't physically interact with the Aetheric plane. It wasn't possible. Or at least it shouldn't have been. But I'd been able to see the Aetheric, to reach it, ever since the Blood Moon a month ago.
Being able to do something didn't mean I should. Or that it was safe.
I ignored the colors, forcing my eyes to focus on the decaying forest as I reached out with my senses, feeling for the grave essence leaking from the dead. And there was no shortage of dead in the floodplain.
The grave essence from a dead doe reached for me like cold wind trying to cut into my skin. And to think I was hot a minute ago. Her remains were no more than fifty yards from where I stood, but I pushed my senses farther, skimming over the traces of small animal bodies and not letting the grave essence sink into my being. I trekked deeper into the floodplain, my magic flowing around me.
The path washed out not far from where the first foot had been found, and the mud made squishing, sucking sounds under my boots until even that gave way to dark water. Foliage, simultaneously healthy and decaying, withered as my gaze moved over it, and I hoped my attention didn't damage the plants. I'd once crumbled a set of stairs when my powers pushed the land of the dead into reality.
"Anything?" John asked, trudging behind me.
Yeah, lots of things. Small animals mostly. Not exactly what we were looking for. I waved him off and kept walking. The water splashed up to the knees of my waterproof suit as I waded through it, my steps slow, both from the water rushing around me and because I was concentrating on feeling the grave essence while holding it at bay so I didn't accidentally raise any shades.
Something… I turned in a small circle, reaching with my mind, my power. Yes, there was something. My power told me it was touching a body, a human body. Male. And I felt a female too. And… two more males?
"This isn't good."
John stopped beside me. "You found something?"
"Bodies. And I hope I'm wrong, but I'm sensing four different essence signatures."
"A fourth victim?"
I wasn't sure, so I didn't answer. I wished I could close my eyes and concentrate just on the feel of the bodies, to get a better sense of where they were located, but it was hard enough to navigate the flooded forest with my eyes open. I waded farther in, the water lapping up to my midthighs. I slipped once, and only John's quick reflexes kept me from landing on my ass in the murky water.
"We might be getting too deep," John said as one of the officers, the shortest in our group, lost his footing and slipped forward in the current. He dug in his toes and righted himself a moment later.
I shook my head at John. "We're almost there." I could feel the bodies just ahead.
The rushing water broke around a fallen tree a couple of yards in front of us. The ancient hardwood's giant roots stretched out in every direction, dirt still covering them, so the root-ball formed a massive mound. The tree hadn't fallen in this particular flood—moss covered the mound and saplings clung to the root-packed earth. The grave essence emanated from somewhere around that tree, and not only grave essence but a dark knot of magic.
I stepped closer, searching with both my power and my eyes. Then I saw them.
"Where?" John asked, looking around.
I pointed. In a hollow near the base of the tree was a neatly stacked pile of bloated and decomposing feet. John's bushy eyebrows drew together, his mustache twitching downward as he frowned. He mopped sweat off his forehead before tilting his head to the side and giving me a confused look.
He doesn't see them? I pointed again, but I wasn't wearing gloves, so I didn't want to contaminate the scene. Trying to figure out the differences between what I could see and what he could see was impossible while staring over multiple planes of reality, so I closed my mental shields, blocking my psyche from the land of the dead—and whatever other planes it touched. My grave-sight faded. The gray coating of the world washed away, as did the swirls of the Aetheric. And so did the feet.
I blinked as I clasped my shield bracelet back around my wrist. Releasing my grave-sight made dark shadows crawl over my vision—I couldn't peer across planes without paying a price—but when I squinted I could make out the hollow where I'd seen the feet. An empty hollow. Or, at least, it looked empty, but I could still feel the grave essence and the taint of magic lifting off the dead appendages. The essence raked at my shields like icy claws, trying to sink under my skin, into my mind. I shivered. The feet were definitely there.
"John, we have a problem," I said, leaning back and trying to shove my hands in my jean pockets—which were blocked by the rubber hip waders. I dropped my hands by my side as everyone looked at me. "There's a pyramid of feet stacked in that hollow. I counted four and at a guess, they are all lefts."
One of the uniformed officers stepped forward. He lifted a long sticklike object with a glass bead on the end. Spellchecker wand. He waved the wand over the hollow. The bead flashed a deep crimson to indicate malicious magic, but the glow was dim, the magic only traces of residual spells.
Stepping back, the officer shook his head. "No active spells, sir."
I stared at the empty-looking hollow. "If they're not hidden behind a spell, it has to be glamour."
"Crap," John said, and turned toward the cop beside him. "Someone get the FIB on the phone. We've got a situation."
The FIB, as in the Fae Investigation Bureau. Glamour was exclusively fae magic, which meant John had just lost jurisdiction.
I slouched in the front of John's police cruiser, one foot on the dash, one hanging out the open door. I'd rather have been out of the car—or more accurately, out of the floodplain. The FIB had arrived and ruffled the cops' feathers. In turn, the cops dashed around, trying to look busy. I was just trying to stay out of the way. But being in the car made me claustrophobic. Actually, if I was honest with myself, it was more than that. Ever since the Blood Moon, being locked inside a car made me jumpy and made my skin itch. I had a sinking suspicion the sensation had something to do with the iron content in the metal. No wonder Falin drove that hot plastic convertible.
The thought of Falin Andrews made my gaze twitch toward the rearview mirror and the two FIB agents reflected in it. I'd met Falin a month ago when he'd been working undercover as a homicide detective on the Coleman case. In truth he was a FIB agent—and a fae—and during the course of the case he'd ended up under my covers as well. But I hadn't heard from him in several weeks. As the two FIB agents approached, I could see there was no shock of long blond hair or a towering swimmer's build among the agents who'd responded to John's call. I wasn't sure yet if I was grateful or disappointed.
"Miss Craft?" A woman in a tailored black power suit approached the car.
Here we go. I nodded, jerking my foot from the dash as I stood.
"I'm Special Agent Nori." She didn't extend her hand. "You were the one who found the remains in the hallow?"
Again I nodded, sliding my hands into my back pockets. It had been nearly an hour since I'd released my grave-sight, and my vision was returning to normal, but I still squinted as I studied Agent Nori. She was a couple of inches shorter than me in her fat-heeled pumps, but she stood completely straight, making the most of her height. She wore her dark hair slicked back like shiny black armor and her piercing eyes were set close enough that her sharp features seemed to come to a point in the front of her face. Or at least, that's what she looked like currently. Being an FIB agent meant she was probably, but not necessarily, fae. What she might look like under her glamour was anyone's guess. I could have dropped my shields and found out, but one, it would have been rude, and two, and perhaps more important, my eyes glowed when my psyche peered across planes, so she would have been able to tell. I wanted to get out of there without any trouble.
"Can you tell me how you were able to pierce the glamour?" she asked, which was exactly the question I'd feared. Luckily I hadn't been waiting idly. I'd been planning my answer.
"I was helping the police search for the remains of the… remains, by using my grave magic. The glamour didn't hide the grave essence emanating from the feet." I left out that I'd been able to see them. Fae didn't tend to like it when people could see through glamour. You could lose your eyes for less.
She pressed her lips together and jotted something on her notepad. "So you followed this… essence? Then what?"
"I tracked where the grave essence originated. I could feel that the body parts were there. That no one else was able to see the feet was a good hint we might be dealing with glamour." All true—just not all of the truth.
Agent Nori clicked her pen closed. "Miss Craft, when you realized glamour was involved, you didn't for a moment think it might have been more prudent to inform the FIB rather than let the mortals blunder around the scene?"
I bristled at the insult toward John and his team. I had a lot of friends in the Nekros City Police Department. Placing a hand on my hip, I lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "They hired me."
"Yes, well, I'm sure they appreciate your help, Miss Craft. Your services will no longer be needed." She turned, gravel crunching under her pumps as she walked away. A few feet past the car, she glanced back over her shoulder. "You realize, of course, that this means we'll have to look into the independent fae in the area." The smile that spread across her face made her brilliantly red lips stretch to flash a lot of white teeth, but it wasn't a happy smile.
I didn't balk. I'd recently learned I was feykin, but she couldn't know that. Could she? Plastering on my own smile, I said, "I guess so."
She left the small gravel parking lot, no doubt headed back to the place where I'd found the pyramid of feet. As I turned to slide into the car again, movement at the tree line caught my eye. While my eyesight had recovered significantly, I'd been in touch with the land of the dead and the grave quite a bit, so at first all I could see was a moving man-shaped mesh of colors. But as the figure drew closer, I quickly realized that while male was the right gender, he wasn't human, but fae.
He hunched, his stringy legs never fully straightening as he slunk closer. Even bent, he stood a head taller than me—and I'm not short. He had the same features as a human, but they were all slightly off. His wide eyes were dark, and overly recessed in his skull, but not from illness. His pale skin was the color of a worm's belly, as if he had never been exposed to daylight, and his hawkish nose extended nearly a hand's width from his face, almost hiding the thin lips and pointed chin.
Even now, seventy years after the Magical Awakening, it was rare to see an unglamoured fae. The fae had come out of the mushroom ring, as some put it, because they were fading from memory and thus the world. They needed human belief to anchor them to reality, but aside from the fae celebrities and politicians, a human was likely to see an unglamoured fae only in a venue that profited from showcasing the fae's differences. Most of those places were little better than tourist traps.
I glanced behind me. Across the parking pit, two officers huddled around the van that had been established as a temporary headquarters for the investigation. Well, at least I'm not completely alone. Of course, just because the strange fae looked creepy and was near the place where we'd found feet masked in glamour, that didn't make him guilty. It did make him a suspect, though. Or possibly a witness.
"Can I help you?" I yelled the question louder than needed, but I wanted to ensure that the officers also heard me. They would want to question the fae.
He paused, then hurried forward in a blur of movement. He crossed from the far edge of the parking lot to the front of John's car before my heart had time to crash in a loud, panicked beat. The cops yelled something I didn't catch above the blood rushing in my ears.
"Can I help you?" I asked again, not daring to look away from someone who could move as fast as this fae. I slid back a step, and then another, the movement far too slow.
"Are you daft?" he asked, his thin lips splitting with the words to reveal pointed teeth.
I blinked at him, startled, but not because of the implied insult in his words, or because of the threat in his expression. No, my shock came at the sound of his voice. The voice that emerged from that thin, awkwardly threatening body was a rich, deep baritone that made even such an angry question sound musical. He had the kind of voice that, in the old folktales, would have drawn children and young women from their beds. Unfortunately, most of those stories didn't end well.
"I don't know what you mean," I said, taking another step back. Across the parking pit, gravel crunched under the cops' running steps. Close. Maybe not close enough.
"Those feet were hidden for a reason." The fae's gaze moved over my head, and his eyes narrowed. "This is your fault, and you will regret your actions," he said. Then, as the cops neared us, he turned, dashed back to the tree line, and disappeared.
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