Rituals – Kelley Armstrong

As Gabriel’s Jag tore up the country road, I stared at the house ahead. Flames blazed from every window. An ambulance sat in the driveway, lights flashing. As I saw that, I exhaled. The only witness who could set my father free was in that house, and we’d been terrified we’d finally found her only to lose her again. But the ambulance said otherwise. That’s when they brought out the stretchers. With body bags. “Maybe it’s not Imogen,” I said. Gabriel parked, and as we walked toward the burning house, I surveyed the personnel on duty. I chose my target and picked up speed as Gabriel fell back. We were almost an hour outside Chicago, and these police might be state troopers, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t know Gabriel by reputation…as one of the city’s most notorious defense lawyers. I approached the young officer left guarding the perimeter and extended my hand. “Liv Jones. We’ve been looking for one of the women renting this house.

Imogen Seale. She’s a material witness in a multiple homicide.” The trooper peered at me with a Don’t I know you from somewhere look. But it was dark and smoky and tonight I was just Liv Jones. Not Olivia Taylor-Jones, former debutante daughter of the Mills & Jones department store owner. Certainly no relation to Eden Larsen, daughter of notorious serial killers Todd and Pamela Larsen. “Hope she wasn’t a valuable witness,” the trooper said. “Kind of,” I said with a wry smile. “I’m guessing she didn’t survive.” “Dead before we arrived, I’m afraid,” she said.

“Her mother fell asleep smoking on the sofa. You’d really think people would know better.” “No smoke detector?” She shook her head. “In old rentals like this, nobody checks until something happens. A fifty-dollar investment could have saved two lives.” “Any chance I can see the bodies?” I asked. “If she’s definitely my witness, I need to move fast in another direction.” “I hear you,” she said, and waved for me to follow. “And I hate to see a killer walk free. Especially a multiple murderer.

” Mmm, yeah, sorry, but actually, if we win this one, we do set a multiple murderer free. It’s a package deal—getting my father out of jail means freeing my mother, too. As we walked, Gabriel fell in beside me. When the trooper glanced at him, I said simply, “My colleague.” “Organized crime?” she said. I choked on a laugh, and she quickly added, “I mean the case. I can imagine you’d need security for something like that.” It wasn’t the first time Gabriel had been mistaken for my bodyguard. When we met, I’d pegged him as hired muscle myself. Even the expensive cut of his suit had only made me amend that to “hired muscle for someone with a lot of money.

” He was at least six-four and built like a linebacker. It was more than his size, though. He just had a look that made people get out of the way. The trooper said something to one of the paramedics, who nodded and opened the smaller body bag. It was Imogen’s mother. Death seemed to have been from smoke inhalation, with signs of suffocation and minimal burning, mostly to her clothing. Which meant there was no chance we were looking at the badly burned remains of a stranger. And the corpse in the other body bag? Imogen herself, mistress of Marty Tyson, one of my mother’s victims. Imogen was the only person who could have testified that Tyson had actually killed the first couple my parents were supposed to have murdered. That was the reasonable doubt we’d needed to overturn the conviction.

And now we’d lost it. — Twenty-two years ago, my mother killed four people so that I could walk again. She’d made a deal with the Wild Hunt—the Cŵn Annwn—to take the lives of four killers. In return, her two-year-old daughter’s severe spina bifida would disappear. And it had. I don’t even remember having it. For twenty-two years I didn’t remember my parents, either. They’d been in prison, the Cŵn Annwn unable to do more than make incarceration easier for them. Of course, what the Cŵn Annwn never knew was that my father played no role in those murders. He’d gone to jail because he believed my mother did the right thing—the brave and strong thing.

He stayed there because freedom would come at the cost of testifying against her, erasing any chance she had of winning an appeal. Now, with Imogen dead, I wasn’t sure either of them had any chance at all. — The next morning, Gabriel drove me to work. He’d spent the night at my house in Cainsville. In the guest room, I hasten to add. We’d been up for hours discussing the case. Now, as he pulled into the laneway of his office greystone, his topic of conversation had nothing to do with work and everything to do with distracting me from fretting over my parents’ appeal. Gabriel had put himself through law school with illegal gaming, and he was finally sharing details. “Blackjack,” he said as we got out of the car. “That was my specialty.

It’s simple and efficient.” “It’s also one of the easiest games to cheat in, isn’t it? Counting cards?” “No one counted cards at my table. Not after the first time.” As we walked around the building, the front door swung open, no one behind it. I stopped short. When I blinked, the door was shut. A door opening on its own. The sign of an unwanted visitor. “Olivia?” I shook off the omen. Given what Gabriel did for a living, we got plenty of unwanted visitors.

“Sorry. Missed my cue,” I said as we walked through the front door. “So, tell me, Gabriel, what’d you do the first time you caught someone counting cards?” He studied me. “Well, are you going to tell me?” I said. “Or is this one of those stories you tease me with and then say Whoops, looks like we’re at the office already. I’ll finish later?” His lips twitched. “You like it when I do that. It builds suspense.” “I hate it when you do that. It’s sadistic.

You have five seconds—” “Gabriel?” Lydia stepped out of the office, closing the door behind her. He bristled at the interruption. “Client?” I guessed. Lydia nodded, and we backed farther down the hall. She glanced toward the stairs, but there was no sign of the other tenants. Still, she lowered her voice as she said, “It’s a woman. She claims to be a relative.” Gabriel grumbled under his breath. The fact Gabriel had a legit job made him one of the few “white sheep” in the Walsh family. So, yes, I was sure relatives showed up now and then, in need of his services.

Which he would happily give, providing they could pay his fees. “Prospects?” he said to Lydia. Lydia’s look said this one wouldn’t be paying her bills anytime soon. “I’ll get rid of her,” I said. Gabriel hesitated. While he hated relinquishing control, this was the efficient solution. Also, listening to some distant relative sob on his sofa was both terribly awkward and a pointless waste of billable hours. “The sooner we get rid of her, the sooner we can get to work on our appeal strategy,” I said. “I’d appreciate that.” He nodded.

“All right. I’ll go get you a mocha. Lydia?” “Chai latte, please,” she said. As Lydia opened the office door, I raised my voice and said, “So, yeah, don’t expect Gabriel anytime soon. This courthouse issue could take all day. We need to—” I stopped short, as if Lydia hadn’t mentioned a client in the reception area. When I got a look at the woman, though, I didn’t need to feign my shock. I couldn’t guess at her age. Maybe sixty, but in a haggard, hard-living way that suggested the truth was about a decade younger. Her coloring matched Gabriel’s, what his great-aunt Rose called “black Irish”—pale skin, blue eyes, and wavy black hair.

She also had the sturdy Walsh build that Gabriel shared with Rose, along with their square face, widow’s peak, and pale blue eyes. Yet I already knew this woman claimed to be a relative, so it wasn’t the resemblance that stopped me in my tracks. I’d seen her face before. In the photo of a dead woman. I had to be mistaken, of course. The dead woman had also been a Walsh, so there was a strong resemblance—that’s all. I walked over, hand extended as she rose. “I’m—” “The infamous Eden Larsen,” she said, and my hackles rose. I am Eden Larsen, as much as I’m Olivia Taylor-Jones. But calling me by my birth name is the social equivalent of a smirk and a smackdown.

I know who you really are, Miss Larsen. I responded with the kind of smile I learned from my adoptive mother. The smile of a society matron plucking the dagger from her back and calmly wiping off the blood before it stains. “It’s Olivia,” I said. “And you are?” A smile played at her lips, and that smile did more than raise my hackles. My gut twisted, and I wanted to shove her out the door. Just grab her arm and muscle her out before she said another word. “I’m Seanna Walsh,” she said. “Gabriel’s mother.” CHAPTER TWO “Seanna Walsh?” I forced a laugh.

“Uh, no. If you’re going to impersonate a long-lost relative, I’d suggest you pick one who’s actually alive.” “Don’t I look alive to you, Eden?” Behind me, Lydia said, “I believe she asked you to call her Olivia.” Lydia’s gaze laser-beamed on the woman, as if ready to throw her out. Gabriel’s assistant may be well past retirement age, but I didn’t doubt she could do it. When I shook my head, though, Lydia walked stiffly to her desk and lowered herself onto the front of it, perched there, ready for action. “You are not Seanna Walsh,” I said. “I’ve seen photographs of her, both before and after her death. You may resemble Seanna, but those coroner pics guarantee you are not her.” “And I guarantee I am.

The pictures were staged.” “Bullshit,” I said, bearing down on her. “You cannot stage—” “With enough money, you certainly can.” “Which only proves you are not Seanna Walsh, who never had a dime she didn’t stick up her arm.” “So it’s true, then. You and my son are more than coworkers.” Footsteps sounded in the hallway. “Get—” I began. “Get where? Under the desk? Behind the bathroom door? Where exactly are you going to hide me, Eden? And why bother, if I’m not really his mother?” The footfalls continued past the office door. Just one of Gabriel’s upstairs tenants.

I took out my phone and texted him. Can you stay away longer, pls? The please would tell Gabriel I was serious. A moment later, he replied saying he was supposed to visit a client at Cook County this morning and should he just do that? Yes, pls. I pocketed my phone and turned to the woman. “Sit down.” She gave that spine-raking smile again. “So you are sleeping with my son. I notice you didn’t deny it.” “Gabriel and I are friends. Good friends.

” “Gabriel doesn’t have friends. No one wants to hang out with a freak.” I felt Lydia’s hand on my arm before I even realized I was surging forward, my fists clenched. In that moment, I forgot that this couldn’t possibly be Seanna Walsh. That was who I saw, who I heard, and I wanted to wrap my hands around her throat and choke the life out of her. It was only when I realized what I was thinking that I exhaled fast and hard. “Sit down,” I said again. She started for the door. I stepped into her path. “I told you—” “No, Eden.

You are adorable, really, but completely out of your league. Go back to painting your nails or picking out a new wardrobe or whatever your type does.” I lifted my hand…to point a gun at her forehead. “This is what my type does. Or have you forgotten who my parents are?” She laughed. “You aren’t that girl, Miss Eden. You might carry that gun and call yourself a private investigator, but those blue jeans cost a week’s salary. You’re a trustfund baby, and my baby is going to fleece you for every penny you have. I hope you realize he’s running a long con here. Give the debutante her bad-girl dream, empty her trust fund, and then dump her pretty little ass.

” I could have told her Gabriel doesn’t need my money. That he owned this building. Owned a million-dollar condo. Kept a hundred grand in cash under his bed for “emergencies.” But that would mean giving her some idea exactly how much her mark was worth. So I shot her. The woman fell back, yowling, though the bullet had barely scraped her leg. I turned to Lydia. “Please call the police and tell them I have been forced to shoot an intruder. It’s only a scratch, but they still may want to send an ambulance.

” Lydia picked up the phone. The woman lunged to grab it. I motioned for Lydia to hang up and said calmly, “Are you going to sit down now?” “You—you shot—” “I grazed you.” I grabbed a tissue box from Lydia’s desk and tossed it at the woman. “Wipe up the blood. If you play nice, I’ll get you bandages. I might even toss in five bucks to buy a patch for your jeans. Now sit. Lydia? Any chance you could grab me a mocha?” Gabriel had a rule about not involving Lydia in trouble, and the legality of that bullet graze was already highly questionable. When I mouthed, “Please?” she nodded with reluctance.

“I’ll be right around the corner,” she said. I waited until she was gone. The woman still wasn’t sitting. She wasn’t making any move to leave, either, so I decided not to press the point. “Seanna Walsh is dead,” I said. “No, Seanna Walsh was playing dead.” She tossed bloodied tissues aside. “I knew this guy—a police sergeant—who used to make problems disappear for a price. We had an arrangement. One night he brought dope to a party, where he got loaded and told me he nabbed a half kilo of coke from the evidence locker.

I saw an opportunity.” “To do what? Steal it?” She snorted. “That would be stupid. I’m not stupid.” I bit my tongue. “I was dealing with other shit at the time,” she said. “I’d conned a guy who blew it all out of proportion. Put a bounty on my head. A bounty.” She sounded genuinely insulted.

“I cut a deal with this sergeant. I’d keep my mouth shut about the dope if he’d help me disappear—stage my death so no one would come after me.” “No one even realized Seanna Walsh was dead until this spring. Fifteen years after she disappeared.” “He screwed me over. The cops were supposed to find this Jane Doe who OD’d—I knew where her body was. My guy would wait six months and then swap her photos with mine and have someone ID me as the dead woman.” “That is the stupidest scheme I’ve ever heard,” I said. “One, someone could have ID’d the real body, which would have ruined everything. Two, six months isn’t enough time for those who actually worked on the dead woman’s case to forget what she looked like.

” “Do you really think anyone gives a shit about some addict who offs herself in an empty building? She was a white chick with dark hair and blue eyes. Close enough. The problem was that, six months later, I was long gone, so this sergeant decided he could swap the photos and leave it at that. Skip the positive ID. I spent years—years—on the run because the asshole who put out the bounty on me figured I bolted. All because that bastard cop couldn’t hold up his end of the deal.” “And Gabriel?” Her face screwed up. “What?” “His mother left him. At fifteen. She walked away without a word.

Without leaving him one penny.” A dismissive eye roll. “Gabriel could look after himself. He’d already been doing it for years. Not that he ever contributed anything. Just made enough for himself.” “He was a child,” I snarled. “He shouldn’t have had to take care of anyone.” “Why not? Everyone does, eventually. Better to learn that lesson early.

And look where it got him.” She waved around the office. “A big-shot lawyer. Drives a fancy car. Lives in a fancy apartment. He wouldn’t have all this if I’d coddled him.” “Get out.” “Oh, so now you want me to leave? Make up your mind, girl.” I pulled out the gun and pointed it at her head. “Get out now.

” She started to make some sarcastic comment. Then she met my gaze, shut her mouth, and limped out the door. — When Lydia returned, I was in the bathroom, plucking hairs from Gabriel’s brush and putting them into a plastic bag. I emerged, and her gaze traveled from the bag in my hand to the bag on her desk, containing the bloodied tissues. “You really think it could be her?” she said. “I think I need that answer as fast as I can get it,” I said. “I’ll pay whatever it takes.”

.

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