Touch The Dark – Karen Chance

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the obituary. The fact that it had my name on it was sort of a clue. What I didn’t know was how they’d found me, and who the guy was with the sense of humor. Antonio has never been much for comedy. I’ve never figured out if that has something to do with being dead, or if he’s always been a morose son of a bitch. The obit was on my office PC’s screen in place of the usual travel agency logo. It looked like part of a newspaper page had been scanned and then set as the computer’s wallpaper, and it hadn’t been there when I’d gone to get a salad half an hour earlier. If I hadn’t been so freaked out, I’d have been impressed. I didn’t know that any of Tony’s goons even knew what a computer was. I scrambled around in a filing cabinet for my gun while I read the joker’s description of my gruesome death later that evening. I had a better gun at my apartment, along with a few other surprises, but going back there probably wasn’t my best move. And unless I was expecting enough trouble to make it worth the risk of carrying concealed, the only thing I kept in my purse was a small canister of mace for potential muggers. After more than three years of relative safety, I’d started to question the need for even that. I’d gotten careless and could only hope it wasn’t about to get me killed. Under my name was a paragraph-long description of an unfortunate incident involving me, an unknown rifleman and two bullets through the head.

The paper had tomorrow’s date, but the hit was to occur at 8:43 tonight on Peachtree Street. I glanced at my watch; it was twenty to eight, so I’d been given an hour’s head start. That seemed too generous for Tony. My best guess for why I wasn’t already dead was that killing me outright was too easy for a guy who had people killed all the time. In my case, he wanted something special. I finally found my Smith & Wesson 3913 under a flyer for a cruise to Rio. I wondered if it was a sign. No way did I have the kind of cash to get out of the country, though, and a chubby-cheeked, blueeyed blonde might look a little obvious next to all those sloe-eyed senhoritas. Plus, I didn’t know if Tony had associates in Brazil, but I wouldn’t put it past him. When you’ve been around long enough to remember drinking Michelangelo under the table, you make a few contacts.

I fished a pack of gum out of the gun compartment in my purse and shoved the Smith & Wesson in. It fit like it had been made for it, which it had. I’d bought the gun, my first, and three of the handbags almost four years ago on the recommendation of a Fed named Jerry Sydell. Like a lot of people, he’d thought I was a nut case, but since I’d helped to cripple one of the biggest crime families in Philly, he was willing to give me some free advice. He helped me pick out the 9-mm semiautomatic pistol, which combined a grip small enough for my hands with the power to discourage anything on two legs. “Except for the ghosts and ghoulies,” he’d said with a grin. “You’re on your own with them.” He’d also taken me to a practice range every day for two weeks, and got me to the point that, even if I still couldn’t hit the side of a barn, I didn’t miss it by much. I’d kept up the practice sessions whenever I could afford them, so now I could definitely hit a barn—if it was a big one and I was standing within about ten feet of it. I was secretly hoping I’d never have to shoot anything besides a target.

It wasn’t my fault it didn’t work out that way. I think Jerry sort of liked me—I reminded him of his eldest kid—and he wanted to see me go straight. He thought I’d got in with the wrong crowd when too young to know better, which was truer than he knew, then wised up and decided to turn state’s evidence. How he explained the fact that a twenty-year-old orphan knew all about the inner workings of a major crime family I’ll never know, but it sure wasn’t faith in “that witchcraft crap,” as he put it. Jerry didn’t believe in the supernatural— any of it. Since I didn’t want him to lock me in a small padded cell somewhere, I didn’t mention my visions, or how close he’d been with the ghosts and ghoulies comment. I’ve always been kind of a ghost magnet. Maybe it’s part of the whole clairvoyance thing; I don’t know. Tony was always careful about what he let me study—I think he was afraid I’d figure out some way to use my abilities against him if I knew too much—so I’m not very knowledgeable about my talent. Of course, it might be that my attractiveness to the spirit world is simply because I can see them: it must be a downer haunting someone who doesn’t even know you’re there.

Not that they haunt me, exactly, but they do like showing off when I’m around. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, like with the old woman I met in an alley as a teenage runaway. I tend to see ghosts as solid much of the time, especially if they are new and powerful, so it took me a while to realize what she was. She was there to act as a sort of guardian angel over her grandson, whom she’d helped to raise. She died when he was ten, and her daughter’s boyfriend started beating him as soon as he went to live with them. The boy ran away in less than a month. She told me that she hadn’t spent a decade watching over him to abandon him now, and she was sure God wouldn’t mind waiting on her a bit. At her request, I gave him enough money to get on a bus to her sister’s place in San Diego before I moved on. Naturally, I didn’t mention that sort of thing to Jerry. He didn’t believe in anything he couldn’t see, touch or put a bullet in, kind of limiting subjects for conversation.

Needless to say, he also didn’t believe in vampires, at least not until a couple of Tony’s guys caught up with him one night and tore his throat out. I knew what was about to happen to Jerry because I Saw his last few seconds as I was getting in the bath. As usual, I got a vivid, full-color, up-close-and-personal ticket to the carnage, which almost made me slip and break my neck on the slick bathroom floor. After I stopped shaking enough to hold a phone, I called the Witness Protection Program emergency number, but the agent who answered got suspicious when I wouldn’t say how I knew what was about to happen. She said she’d get a message to Jerry but didn’t sound too enthused about disturbing his weekend. So I called Tony’s lead thug—a vamp named Alphonse—and reminded him that he was supposed to find out where the government had stashed me, not risk angering the Senate by killing humans who didn’t even know anything. Jerry was useless to them because his information was about to be old news. I’d never been very successful in altering my visions’ outcomes, but I was hoping that use of the Senate’s name would be enough to make Alphonse think twice. The Senate is a group of really old vamps who pass laws that the less powerful ones have to obey. While they don’t think any more of humans than Tony does, they like the freedom of being only a myth and go to a lot of trouble not to draw mortal attention.

Killing FBI agents is the sort of thing that tends to piss them off. But all Alphonse did was give me the usual runaround while his boys traced the call. In the end, the only thing I could do was make sure that by the time anybody got to my door, I was already on a bus out of town. I figured that since the government won’t even admit that vampires exist, its chances of keeping me safe from them wasn’t too good. I thought my odds were better on my own, and for more than three years I’d been right. Until now. I didn’t bother to grab anything from the office except the gun: one thing about running for your life —it really narrows your priorities. Not that my 9 mm would do much to a vamp, but Tony often used human thugs for minor errands. I really hoped he hadn’t thought me worth calling in actual talent. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of taking a few bullets to the brain, but I liked even less the prospect of ending up as one of his permanent acquisitions.

He’d never let me be turned because he’d had a psychic once who became a vamp and was completely psi blind afterwards, and he thought my gift too useful to risk. Now I was worried that he’d take the gamble. If I lost my talent after the change, he could stake me and get payback for some of the hell I’d caused him. If not, he’d have an immortal adept with guaranteed loyalty, since it’s really hard to go against the wishes of the vamp who made you. It was a win-win situation from his perspective, assuming he saw past his rage long enough to figure that out. I checked the gun and made sure it had a full clip. If they caught me, I wasn’t going down without a fight, and if worse came to worst, I’d eat the last round before I called that bastard master. Unlike last time, there was something I had to do before I caught a ride to yet another new life. I slipped out of the agency ASAP, just in case Tony’s boys decided to fudge a little on the deadline, and avoided the front door by squirming through the bathroom window. It always seems so easy when people do that on TV.

I ended up with a scraped thigh, torn hose and a bitten lip from trying not to swear. I finally managed it, ran down a dingy side street to a parking garage and cut across to a Waffle House. The trip was short but nerve-racking. Familiar alleys suddenly looked like perfect hiding places for Tony’s thugs, and every noise sounded like a gun being cocked. The Waffle House had bright halogen lights in the parking lot, making me feel terribly exposed as I crossed it. Mercifully, the bank of phones was in shadow near one side of the building. I parked myself in front of the one that worked and dug some change out of my purse, but no one picked up at the club. I let the phone ring twenty times while I bit my lip and told myself it didn’t mean anything. It was Friday night—probably no one was able to hear a phone over the din, or had time to answer if they did. It took a while to get there on foot, since I was trying to stay out of sight and to avoid breaking an ankle in my new, over-the-knee, high-heeled boots.

I’d bought them because they matched the cute leather mini a salesgirl had talked me into, and I’d planned to wow them at the club after work, but they weren’t exactly made for speed. I’m supposed to be this powerful clairvoyant, but do you think anything popped into my head earlier about maybe wearing tennis shoes, or at least flats? Hell, no. Just like I never win the lottery. All I See is the kind of stuff that nightmares and serious drinking problems are made of. It was one of those hot Georgia nights when the air feels like a heavy blanket against your skin and the humidity is off the charts. A thin mist showed up in the glow of the lampposts, but most of the available light came from the moon gleaming off rain-slick streets and turning puddles silver. The night had bleached the color from the buildings downtown, fading them a soft gray that blended into the shadows and hid the tops of the skyscrapers. The historic district was like something out of time that night, especially when I passed the Margaret Mitchell House on West Peach-tree. It seemed perfectly natural when one of the horse-drawn carriages that cater to the tourist trade came around the corner—except that it was going at a full gallop and almost ran me over. I had a second to see the frightened faces of the tourists who were hanging on for dear life in the back seat, before the carriage ricocheted off the sidewalk and careened down the street out of sight.

I dragged my mud-covered self out of the gutter and glared around suspiciously. Merry laughter from behind me explained how that fat old horse had been convinced to try for a new speed record. A trail of mist, almost indistinguishable from the light rain, drifted by. I grabbed it, metaphysically speaking. “Portia! That wasn’t funny!” The laugh tinkled again and a pretty southern belle complete with swinging hoopskirts materialized in front of me. “Oh, yes, it was. Did you see their faces?” Mirth sparkled in what had once been eyes bluer than mine. Tonight they were the color of the churning clouds overhead. I fished around in my purse for a tissue to wipe off my boots. “I thought you weren’t going to do that anymore.

If you scare off the tourists, who will you play with?” There aren’t a lot of companies willing to pretend that Atlanta, like Savannah or Charleston, has enough of a historic district to make horse-drawn tours worthwhile. If Portia kept up her games, whatever southern charm had managed to survive the urban sprawl—which offered such time-honored favorites as the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center and the Underground Atlanta mall—was doomed. Portia gave me a pout so attractive that she must have practiced it in front of a mirror when she was alive. “You’re no fun, Cassie.” I shot her an unhappy look as I tried to clean the mud-splattered leather, but all I managed was to streak it. Never once had I made a run for it looking chic. “I’m plenty of fun, just not tonight.” It had started to rain, and the droplets were falling through Portia to spatter on the concrete. I hate that; it’s like looking at a TV through too much interference. “You haven’t seen Billy Joe, have you?” I call Billy Joe my guardian spirit, but that isn’t entirely accurate.

He’s more of a pain in the ass who occasionally turns out to be useful, but right then I wasn’t feeling picky. Billy is what remains of an Irish American gambler who failed to lose the right hand of cards in 1858. A couple of irate cowboys, who correctly assumed they’d been cheated, shoved him into a sack and tossed it in the Mississippi. Luckily for him, he’d recently relieved a visiting countess of a large, ugly necklace that served as a sort of supernatural battery, collecting magical energy from the natural world and storing it until needed. When his spirit left his body, it came to rest in the necklace, which he haunted the same way other ghosts did more conventional things, such as crypts. It gave him enough power to continue to exist, but it was my occasional donations of living energy that made him as mobile as he was. I had found the necklace in a junk shop when I was seventeen, and Billy and I had been a team ever since. Of course, he couldn’t take a message to the club for me so I didn’t have to go in person, but he could serve as lookout in case any bad guys got too close. Assuming I could find him, that was, something that required a little ghostly help. There are a lot of ghosts in Atlanta, and most are your run-of-the-mill, let’s-haunt-something-untilwe-work-through-our-issues-or-fade-away types like Billy Joe.

There are also a few guardian spirits and an occasional psychic imprint, not that the latter are technically ghosts. Imprints are like a supernatural theater that shows the same movie over and over until you want to scream. Since it’s usually something traumatic, running into one isn’t fun. I’d spent my free time for a couple of months after I moved in learning the streets in the area, and one of the main things I’d been looking for was imprint zones. I’d found about fifty dealing with the burning of the city during the Civil War, but most were too weak to cause me much more than a twinge. But there was a big one between my apartment and the agency where a slave had once been ripped apart by a pack of dogs. I started taking the long way around after I got caught in it one day. I have a lot of memories I’d just as soon forget; I don’t need other people’s nightmares. Portia, however, isn’t an imprint. Sometimes, I thought she was worse.

Portia is one of those ghosts who relive the tragic parts of their lives over and over, but not like a mindless movie. They’re haunters with a fixation, similar to an obsessive human who wants to wash her hands fifty times a day. And they’re mobile, so they can follow you around and run on about whatever is bothering them 24/7. I broke Billy Joe of that early—he’s upset because he died young, but I can handle only so many choruses of “the life I should have had” before I start to get crabby. Unfortunately, I’d caught Portia in a talkative mood, and it took more than ten minutes to find out— after a detailed description of the ivory buttons she’d sewn onto her never-used wedding gown—that she hadn’t seen Billy Joe. Typical. I spend most of my time wishing he’d go away, but he never gets lost until I need him. My level of aggravation must have shown on my face, because Portia stopped in the middle of the story about a party where two officers had fought each other over the last place on her dance card. It was one of her favorites and she was clearly not pleased to see my attention wandering. “You aren’t listening, Cassie.

Is something wrong?” An angry snap of her little laceedged fan said there had damn well better be. “Tony’s found me and I need to get out of town. But I have to go by the club first, and I need a lookout.” I knew as soon as I said it that I should have kept my mouth shut. Portia’s eyes got even bigger, and she clapped her dainty gloved hands together delightedly. “Oh, what fun! I’ll help!” “Um, that’s really generous of you, Portia, but I don’t think … I mean, there’s a lot of ways into the club, and you couldn’t cover all of them.” But Portia got a familiar, steely glint in her eyes and I immediately relented. Most of the time she was sugar sweet, but get her upset at you and things could get bad fast. “I’ll find help,” she promised. “It’ll be like a party!” She disappeared in a swirl of petticoats, and I sighed.

Some of Portia’s friends were even more annoying than she was, but any lookouts were better than none. And I didn’t have to worry about Tony’s boys noticing them. Even if he’d sent vamps, they wouldn’t see a thing. As strange as it sounds, a lot of people in the supernatural community don’t believe in ghosts. Oh, some will agree that there is the occasional troubled spirit who hangs around its grave for awhile before accepting the inevitable, but few would accept it if I told them just how many spirits stick around after death, how many different types there are, and how active some of them can be. Spirits like Portia and Billy Joe are, for the supernatural community, like vamps are to the human—old stories and legends that are dismissed without proof. What can I tell you? It’s a weird world. I arrived at the club a few minutes later, out of breath and with aching arches, but intact. Showing up was, of course, a really bad idea. Even if nobody had followed me, a dozen people at the agency and my apartment building knew I worked there part-time.

It was also only a block from Peachtree, which was not a coincidence I liked. If it ended up getting me killed, I planned to come back and haunt Tony. But I couldn’t leave without warning my roommate and making some kind of arrangement for him. I had enough guilt without adding another messed-up life to my total. The club, with its high ceiling of exposed steel joints, graffiti-covered concrete walls and massive dance floor, was larger than most, but that night, there were enough gyrating figures under the hanging disco lights to make it almost claustrophobic. I was grateful for the crush, since it made it less likely that anyone would notice me. I slipped in the back way and didn’t encounter any problems—at least, not of the gun-waving, homicidal variety. One of the bartenders had called in sick, so they were shorthanded, and Mike tried to talk me into subbing as soon as he saw me. Normally I wouldn’t have minded, since my usual job as one of his novelty acts didn’t provide much in tips. I read tarot three nights a week, although I’ve never liked the cards.

I used them because it’s expected, but I don’t need to squint at archaic images to know what’s about to happen. My visions come in Technicolor and surround sound, and are a lot more complete. But most people would have preferred a standard reading to what I gave out. Like I said, I’m better at Seeing the bad stuff. Tonight, though, I declined the chance to make a few bucks. I didn’t think bartending was the way I wanted to spend my last hour. “What’s the word?” Mike yelled at me cheerfully, doing a Tom Cruise with the liquor bottles to the rowdy appreciation of the crowd. I sighed and dug in my purse. My fingers clenched around the greasy tarot deck that had been a tenth-birthday gift from my old governess, Eugenie. She’d had a charm put on the cards by some witch with a sense of humor, and I kept it with me because it was good for entertaining customers.

But the predictions—which acted like a kind of karmic mood ring—had an eerie habit of being right on the money. I held it up and a card popped out. It wasn’t one I wanted to see. “The Tower,” a booming voice began, before I shoved it back in the pack and deep into my purse. “Is that good?” Mike asked, before getting distracted by a pretty blonde’s cleavage. I merely nodded and hurried off, losing myself in the crowd before he could hear anything else. The voice was only a muffled croak from my overcrowded bag, but I didn’t need to hear it to know what it said. The Tower signifies a huge, cataclysmic change, the kind that leaves a life completely altered. I tried to tell myself that it could have been worse—it could have been Death—but it wasn’t much comfort. The Tower is probably the most feared card in the deck.

Death can have many meanings, most not the literal one, but the Tower always indicates trouble for anyone who wants a quiet life. I sighed—what else was new? I finally located Tomas in the Dungeon—Mike’s nickname for the basement room—wading through a sea of black-clad bodies with a tray of used glasses. He looked edible, as usual, if your thing is slender muscles, skin like honey over cream and sable hair that brushes his waist when he doesn’t keep it pulled back. His face should look too rugged to be handsome, all high cheekbones and strong angles, but the delicacy of some of the features make up for it. His hair was off his face in a thick braid, a sure sign he was working, since he prefers it loose, but a few pieces had worked free and billowed about his head in fine strands. Mike had picked out the outfit: a black silk shirt knitted in a cobweb design that revealed more than it covered, sleek black jeans that fit him like a second skin and black leather boots that climbed halfway up his thighs. He looked like he ought to be headlining at a strip club instead of waiting tables, but the exotic, melt-in-your-mouth sex appeal pushed a lot of buttons for the Goths. I didn’t exactly find it hard on the eyes, either.

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