An Alex Craft Novel
When the dead need to talk, Alex Craft is always ready to listen…
As a Grave Witch, Alex solves murders by raising the dead—an ability that comes at a cost, and after her last few cases, that cost is compounding. But her magic isn’t the only thing causing havoc in her life. While she’s always been on friendly terms with Death himself, things have recently become a whole lot more close and personal. Then there’s her sometime partner, agent Falin Andrews, who is under the glamour of the Winter Queen. To top everything off, her best friend has been forever changed by her time spent captive in Faerie.
But the personal takes a backseat to the professional when a string of suicides occur in Nekros City and Alex is hired to investigate. The shades have no memory of the days leading up to their brutal endings, so despite the very public apparent suicides, this is murder. But what kind of magic can overcome the human will to survive? And why do the shades lack the memory of their deaths? Searching for the answer might mean Alex won’t have a life to remember at all…
“What do you think?” I asked, as I fumbled for the light switch. An incandescent bulb flickered on, and then continued flickering. I frowned at it, but the late–afternoon sunlight streaming through the grimy picture window prevented the gloom from devouring the room.
Rianna peered through the open doorway but made no effort to enter. Her hand fell to idly scratch behind the ear of the barghest who acted as her ever–present shadow. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”
“The official office for Tongues for the Dead,” I said, waving a hand as if presenting the room.
Rianna had first suggested we open a PI firm that solved cases by questioning the dead when we were still in academy, but by the time I’d finished college, she’d vanished. Three months ago I’d found and liberated her from a power–hungry fae who’d made her a captive changeling of Faerie, and in the wake of recent chaos, we were both healing, adapting, and rebuilding. Which, in my opinion, made now the perfect time to give the dreams of two idealistic schoolgirls a second chance.
Rianna obviously didn’t agree.
“Alex, I think you might need to give your eyes a little more time to recover.”
“This place isn’t that bad,” I said, glancing around the room I envisioned would be a reception lobby—you know, if the firm ever became profitable enough to hire a receptionist. My gaze skidded over walls covered in layers of graffitied runes and minor, mostly dispersed, spells, before moving on to take in the balding carpet, and the piles of beer cans and cigarettes tossed haphazardly around the otherwise empty room. “It just needs a little TLC.”
Rianna cocked an eyebrow, and the barghest, Desmond, who was in his customary shape of an oversized black dog with red–ringed pupils, huffed, making his jowls billow.
“Okay, so it needs a lot of work, but the rent is affordable”—barely, and only because my landlord waived the rent on my loft as payment for the last big case I’d worked—“and it’s in the Magic Quarter. A definite perk as we offer magical solutions in our investigations.”
“Alex, this is a seedy back alley on the very edge of the Magic Quarter. We’re about as far as we can be from the heart of the Quarter. No upscale restaurants. No spell boutiques. Not even the kitschy stores hawking overpriced, underpowered charms to norms are out this far.” She glanced over her shoulder at the only other door in the admittedly less than ideal alley and lowered her voice. “And I’m pretty sure that unmarked shop is dealing black magic.”
“Gray actually,” I said and her eyes widened. “Hey, it’s not like I went shopping. I just sensed a couple of mild compulsion spells and a lot of weak love charms when I passed by the shop. I think it’s run by a matchmaker.”
“And you were planning to call the OMIH when, exactly?”
The Organization for Magically Inclined Humans was originally formed as an advocate group for witches during the turmoil following the Magical Awakening. A good seventy years later they were still considered the public face of the witch population, but now their mission statement focused on education and promoting the safe and ethical use of magic. That, of course, meant they policed their own.
“Keep your voice down,” I hissed. I had no desire to irritate a neighbor willing to spin gray spells—which were a short step from the really dark, soul damaging stuff. “I contacted the OMIH already. They’re supposed to send an inspector out this week, and once they confirm my report, they’ll alert the Magical Crimes Investigation Bureau.” Which sounded like a lot of tedious bureaucratic red tape. But despite the fact I was an OMIH certified sensitive, citizens couldn’t contact the MCIB directly so we’d have to wait. The unmarked door on the other side of the alley opened, and I ducked back into the office we were actually supposed to be discussing. “Once we fix this place up, it could be nice. It has the lobby area, a bathroom, and two offices. Exactly what we need,” I said, as if we’d never veered off the subject.
Rianna frowned and curled her fingers in Desmond’s fur. “You can see again, so you don’t need me to substitute anymore, and we both know there isn’t enough business to justify the overhead of an office. Especially when you were doing fine running things through phone and e–mail.”
Well, not always fine. At times I’d barely scraped by, which only highlighted her point. But I had other reasons I wanted to open an office.
When I first emancipated Rianna, she’d been reluctant to spend time in the mortal realm. But when I’d lost my sight several weeks ago after a showdown with a witch who thought the world would be better if all the planes of existence touched—yeah, no, bad idea—Rianna had stepped up and covered my cases. At first she’d left Faerie for only a couple of hours on the days rituals were scheduled. But recently she’d been spending almost all day, every day in Nekros, and while her visits hadn’t completely erased the wraithlike appearance she’d had as Coleman’s soul–chained captive, she now had color in her cheeks and the bruiselike circles no longer ringed her eyes. The mortal realm agreed with her. I didn’t want her to disappear into Faerie again.
Besides, my ability to raise the dead was wyrd magic, and if I didn’t use it, it used me. Over the last few weeks I’d had to perform a couple of off–the–books rituals, holding the shades just long enough to relieve the magical pressure on my shields. But even those limited rituals had come at a higher cost than before. If I returned to raising shades several times a week I’d be permanently blind before I hit thirty. Tongues for the Dead needed a new business model.
“I was actually thinking about expanding the firm’s services. Take on some cases with billable hours not restricted to rituals and talking to shades. Cases that utilize more . . . traditional forms of investigation.”
“Traditional investigation?” She cocked her head to the side. “Like what? Surveillance? Tailing spouses suspected of cheating? Maybe a stakeout?” I didn’t miss the sarcasm in her tone. Rianna and I were all but night blind, to say nothing of my degrading vision. Then there was the fact that as a changeling, Rianna couldn’t be in the mortal realm during sunset or sunrise without deadly consequences.
“More like locating missing persons or artifacts, tracing the origins of spells or charms. Hell, we could even do background checks if someone would pay us. Between you graduating at the top of your class in spellcasting and me being one of the top five sensitives in the city, we have skills to offer besides grave magic.” I didn’t mention that she’d had a couple hundred extra years practice while in Faerie or that I had the whole planeweaving thing going on. Neither facts were something either of us wanted on a résumé. I turned back to the room, which she still hadn’t entered, and waved a hand to encompass the space. “Ignore the mess and imagine what this place could look like. For instance, take that picture window. Once it’s cleaned up, we can have ’Alex Craft and Rianna McBride: Tongues for the Dead Investigations’ stenciled on it.”
Rianna glanced at the window, which was coated in a decade’s worth of dust, but the faintest hint of a smile appeared at the edge of her mouth. “You’d put my name on it too?”
“How could I not? You were the one who looked up from a mystery novel during your final year at academy and suggested the name.”
The smile grew a little brighter. “I’d forgotten about that. It was so long ago.” She finally stepped inside, Desmond at her heels. “Show me around?”
That task didn’t take long. The doors to the two offices were on opposite sides of the room, and neither office was large—or in better shape than the front room—but each had enough space for a desk, some filing cabinets, and a couple of chairs, which would be enough for meeting with clients. There was also a small closet and a bathroom against the very far wall, but neither of us was brave enough to see what condition it might be in, at least, not yet.
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” she said as she surveyed the lobby.
“Then you’re in?”
“Of course I am.” The words were flat, void of any excitement.
I turned and studied her face. It was blank, unexpressive, and totally not the response I anticipated. “This isn’t that faerie master crap again, is it?”
Sadly, it was a legitimate question. When I’d destroyed her former master, Faerie had passed all of his holdings on to me. That included an enormous castle straight out of a fairy tale and his prize changeling, Rianna. I had no interest in owning my childhood friend, but she was a changeling, bound to Faerie and its magic. If I renounced her, some other fae could take her. So I accepted the claim, and as far as Faerie was concerned, she was my property, obliged to my will.
But I considered it political bullshit, and she knew it.
“Rianna, you’re free to do whatever you want, including telling me you’ve outgrown your interest in being a private investigator.”
“Al, don’t think that. It’s nothing like that.” She wove her fingers into Desmond’s fur again, and he leaned against her leg, offering his support. “It’s . . . I . . .” She shook her head. “Sometimes I forget that only a few years passed for you while I spent hundreds under Coleman’s control. The freedom to want things for myself, to reach for my own dreams—it’s something I nearly forgot. Having options is a little overwhelming.” She looked around the room, her gaze slow and assessing. A smile crept across her face as she peeked into one of the offices again. Then she turned toward me. “Yes, I want this. I want to be Rianna McBride, PI for Tongues for the Dead. Let’s do it, boss.”
“Partner,” I corrected.
“Partner.” The word was a whisper, but her smile spread, making her green eyes sparkle.
“It’s official, then.” I glanced around the room, imagining what it could be. It was going to take a lot of work.
“I guess we should start with paint,” Rianna said, following my gaze. “And something for the carpet?”
“Some essential furniture too,” I said, digging through my purse. “But first . . .” I pulled out a thin rectangular box. I’d wrapped it in newspaper—wrapping paper was expensive and this counted as recycling, right? Rianna gave me a quizzical look as I handed it to her.
“I didn’t get you anything,” she said, staring at the box in its makeshift wrapping.
“Don’t be silly, just open it.”
She bit her lip, as if unsure. Then a grin cut across her face and she lifted the box to her ear and gave it a good shake.
“Hey, it could be breakable,” I said, and her grin grew.
“Nah, you’d have stopped me earlier.” She tore into the packaging. Her perplexed look didn’t change when she pulled out a small metal container engraved with her initials, but when she flipped it open, she gave out a squeal of a laugh. “Business cards,” she said, pulling out the thin stack of cards. “And that’s the logo I tried—and failed—to draw. You nailed it. When did you have this done?”
I shrugged, but I was grinning too. “I created the template years ago. But after you disappeared I didn’t feel right using it. These I had printed yesterday. I’m just glad you said yes.”
She closed the lid and clutched the gift as if it were much more valuable than a cheap case and a handful of business cards. Then she bounced on the balls of her feet before scampering over to hug me. But she didn’t thank me. I don’t know if that was for my sake as I hated feeling the imbalance of debt, or simply because she’d lived among the fae so long. Either way, the hug expressed her gratitude more than sufficiently.
“So, furniture,” I said as we headed back outside into the bright afternoon sun. “Unfortunately our budget is thrift, but maybe we’ll luck out.”
I locked our new office and we headed up the alley with Desmond following in our wake, or maybe he was taking rear guard—it was always hard to tell what the barghest was thinking. Rianna had parked my car around the corner since, legally, I couldn’t drive. It was well documented that grave magic damaged the witch’s eyesight, so we were required to take a vision test once a year.
Yeah, guess when mine had come due? My—suspended—driver’s license currently listed me as blind. If I could avoid any serious damage to my eyes, I hoped I could retake the test and pass next week.
We were just passing the matchmaker’s door, the gray magic inside pricking at my senses, when Annabella Lwin began singing the chorus of “I Want Candy” in my purse. My phone. I dug it out but didn’t bother glancing at the display. When I’d replaced my phone yet again—the latest cellular casualty had been lost in Faerie—Holly, my housemate and good friend, had set her own ring tone.
She didn’t bother with a greeting. “I want chocolate so bad, I may kill the next person I see with a Snickers bar.”
“I sure hope you didn’t just say that in the middle of the courthouse.” After all, Holly was an assistant district attorney, and I was guessing that threatening to kill people over vending machine fare wouldn’t go over well.
“I just left,” she said, and a car horn blared through the phone.
“So is this where I’m supposed to be the sympathetic friend to your chocolate plight or where I offer to meet you for lunch?”
“Both? My last case for the day is over, so aside from a mountain of research, I’m free for the afternoon,” she said, and her horn sounded again. “God, what I wouldn’t do for just one piece of rich, dark chocolate.”
I winced on behalf of the cars around her. I doubted they were driving any worse than most Nekros citizens or deserved the long blasts of her horn. Tilting the phone away from my mouth, I glanced at Rianna.
“You up for a change of plans? We’ll furniture shop later. Let’s go celebrate the new business over lunch and drinks.”
Rianna stopped, forcing me to turn on my heels and double back. “Where were you thinking?” she asked.
“The Eternal Bloom—before Holly commits vehicular homicide.”
“I heard that,” Holly’s voice snapped in my ear.
Rianna frowned. “Doesn’t sound like much of a celebration if you can’t drink.”
It was true, but there wasn’t anywhere we could go that all of us could lift a glass together. As a changeling, Rianna was addicted to faerie food, anything else she tried to eat turned to ash on her tongue. Holly wasn’t a changeling, not currently at least, but a month ago she’d been exposed to faerie food, and one bite was enough to addict a mortal. Not that she didn’t miss mortal food—hence her chocolate–withdrawal inspired rage. I sympathized. Which was why, despite the fact I’d recently learned I had more fae blood than not and was apparently going through some sort of fae–mien metamorphosis, I was avoiding faerie food. If I turned out too mortal to resist it, I was sure I couldn’t live without coffee and Faerie didn’t serve it. My abstention meant that going to Nekros’s local fae bar, the Eternal Bloom, excluded me from the meal. Unfortunately, since Holly was neither fae nor changeling, she couldn’t get into the VIP area, so she needed an escort and today was my day.
“We’re not far from the Bloom,” I said, swiveling the phone back in front of my mouth. “You want to meet in about twenty—”
A booming crash and the sound of shattering glass exploded from somewhere around the corner. The blare of first one and then the honks of several car alarms sounded.
“What the hell was that?” Holly asked, her voice pitched high. “Alex, is everyone okay?”
“I don’t know. It sounded like a car crash.” I broke into a run, Rianna at my side. Desmond raced ahead of us, a black blur as he bounded around the corner and out of the alley.
“Are you okay? Anyone hurt?” Holly asked again.
“We’re fine. Hang on a second,” I said, and then under my breath muttered, “That better not have been someone hitting my car.” It was new, and from the sound of the impact, something had taken major damage.
As it turned out, major damage was an understatement. I breached the mouth of the alley and ground to a halt, my mouth falling slack at the scene in front of me.
“Holly, I think we’re going to be late,” I said into the phone, but if she replied before I ended the call, I didn’t hear.
A crowd was gathering in the street, people pouring out of shops and cars screeching to a halt as the drivers stared with pale, shocked faces. The impact we’d heard had been a car—not mine—a little red sedan parallel parked a few spaces behind mine. Glass littered the street and sidewalk around it from where it had exploded as the roof caved. But it wasn’t another vehicle that had hit the car.
It was a body.
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