For the first time since Claire Kennedy died last week, there wasn’t a police officer guarding the site of her murder. Kayla peered out from behind the boarded-up beauty salon. Seeing no one, she hoisted her backpack and set out, kicking stones, her gaze fixed on the ground. She was careful to walk slowly. If you ran, grown-ups paid attention. Kayla hated it when they paid attention. She liked being invisible. Until her mom was murdered last year, Kayla had always been invisible. But now it wasn’t just the other kids who whispered behind her back, calling her weird or—in grownup language—“an odd little thing.” Adults did, too. It wouldn’t help if they found her sneaking into the place where her mom had been murdered. Kayla knew the rear door would be locked. She had lock picks from her Junior Detective kit, but they were just toys. She knew a way in, though. A boarded-up window on the first floor with a gap big enough for a nine-year-old to squeeze through.
Concrete blocks scattered behind the building made a good stepladder. She pushed her backpack in first. It hit the floor with a thump. As she hoisted herself through the window, she avoided the broken glass she’d cut herself on last time. Grandma had flipped out and taken her to the clinic. Grandma was like that. She worried a lot. After Mom died, Kayla thought Grandma would have less to worry about. No such luck. She dropped to the floor and rummaged in her backpack for her flashlight.
Plastic, of course. She’d considered asking Grandma for a real one for her birthday, but hadn’t figured out yet how to explain why she needed it. Kayla shone the flashlight around. Empty. No, that was the wrong word. The building was only empty of people. Abandoned. There was tons of crap here, all of it dirty and old and broken, but Kayla barely needed the flashlight to get where she was going. She’d been here five times since her mom had died. She’d recorded every visit in her notebook.
There hadn’t been much to see, though. By the time she thought of coming, the police had cleared the place out. This time it would be different. If Claire Kennedy had been killed here just over a week ago, there had to be a connection to the murder of her mother and her mother’s best friend. There just had to be. She opened the basement door and shone her light into blackness. She went down one step, then stopped, working up her nerve as she always did, before shutting the door and letting the darkness of the basement envelop her, her plastic flashlight barely strong enough to cast a pale, distant circle. Halfway down the stairs, she heard the thump of a door shutting above. An officer back on duty? That was okay. He’d peek inside the main floor, assure himself all was clear, then sit outside in his pickup.
Kayla knew the routine. Still she listened for a minute. When no more noises came, she resumed her descent. Down into the basement, where the chill was enough to make her wish she’d brought her jacket. Lissa would say it was the chill of death. Lissa talked like that. When Kayla confided that she came here, her friend’s eyes had gone round and she’d said, “Are you trying to contact her ghost?” “Whose ghost?” “Your mother’s, dummy. If you could talk to her, she could tell you who killed her.” Kayla thought that was silly, but she didn’t say so. Lissawas the only friend she had.
It was just a dark, cold, smelly basement. Where her mom had died. And no one knew who’d done it or why. That’s why Kayla kept coming back. To find out what had happened to her mom. And to Brandi, though really she didn’t much care what had happened to Brandi. But Grandma would say she shouldn’t think like that. She did want to find out what happened to Claire Kennedy, though. She hadn’t really known Claire—she was one of the girls from the cookie place—but she’d seen her around town a few times, and she’d seemed nice, always smiling and waving, even though they’d never met. From the bottom of the basement stairs, Kayla picked her way around piles of junk until she saw the yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a pillar, the broken end trailing across the floor.
She stopped. It was exactly the same spot where her mother’s and Brandi’s bodies had been found. She shivered and maybe it wasn’t the cold this time, but she told herself it was. She crept forward. There was blood on the cement floor. The spot wasn’t very big, not like the big stains she could still see, almost hidden under a layer of dust. She shone the flashlight on those old blood stains and, for a second, she could see her mother lying there, her eyes open, her— Kayla shook her head sharply and swung the beam away. She wasn’t here to think about her mother. She was here to find out who killed her. And she didn’t need ghosts for that.
She needed science. She took her backpack off and unzipped it. Inside was her Junior Detective kit. She had a camera, too. A real one. It was on her mom’s old cell phone, which Grandma let her keep for emergencies. She took it out for a picture of the blood. Blood stains were important. They could tell you— A creak overhead. Kayla froze.
Then she shook her head. Just a noisy old building. She aimed the flashlight with one hand, holding the cell with the other— This time footsteps sounded above her, crossing the first floor, the distinct thumpthump of someone walking. She swallowed. Just the police officer. Or maybe Chief Bruyn, come back to check something. Or someone from town, also trying to sneak a peek at the crime scene. But what if it was someone else? Kayla had read every book in the library on murder investigations. One line came back to her now. The killer may return to the scene of the crime.
It seemed crazy to come back after you’d gotten away, but Kayla trusted the books and, listening to those footsteps, her heart hammered. Then it hit her. If this was the killer, maybe she really could solve her mother’s death. All she had to do was hide and see who showed up. A click from upstairs—the basement door opening. Kayla turned off her flashlight and tucked herself into the shadows beside the old furnace. one For five years, I’d toiled as executive assistant slave to Lucas and Paige and now, finally, I was in charge. For the next week anyway. The plaque still read Cortez-Winterbourne Investigations, but that could be easily changed with the deft use of an energy bolt spell. Levine Investigations rolled off the tongue so much more easily.
At one time, I would have done it, if only as a joke, but there are things you can get away with at sixteen that just don’t fly at twenty-one. I used my key card, then crept through the lobby, trying to squelch the click of my heels. “Savannah!” a voice chirped behind me. “I thought I heard you come in.” I started a cover spell, but Tina had already spotted me. I considered a knockback spell—make her trip and give me time to escape. But that would, sadly, not be a good way to launch my week playing a responsible adult. When Paige said we were getting an accountant for a tenant, I’d thought, Great, someone nice and quiet. That was the stereotype, but apparently, no one had told Tina. “I’m so glad I caught you,” she said.
“It’s almost ten and no one’s in the office yet.” It was 9:14. “There was a man here looking for Lucas,” she continued. “I called upstairs and the phone rang and rang. Did he and Paige leave on vacation already? I know Adam is at a conference. In Spokane, isn’t he?” I made a noncommittal noise. Tina might be human, but she had a supernatural sense for snooping. Adam said we should hire her. I threatened to give her his home address and that shut him up. “I hate to tell you kids how to run your business, but you really need to have someone up there during business hours.
It’s no wonder you have hardly any clients. You need a full-time receptionist.” She patted my arm. “Yes, I know, dear, you’re the receptionist, but you’re always flitting off, doing god-knows-what. I could—” “Oh, my cell phone’s vibrating,” I lied. “Could be a client. I’ll talk to Paige about dropins.” “It’s no bother, dear. I wanted to speak to you anyway. I think I have a job for you.
” Tina lowered her voice, though we were the only ones in the lobby. “I started dating this man. A widower I met online.” “And you want me to run a background check? Good idea.” “Oh, no. A man has the right to his privacy. It’s just … Well, I was watching this show on private investigators, about a firm of women hired by other women to test their mate’s loyalty.” It took me a second to catch her drift. “You want me to try to seduce your boyfriend?” Her lips pursed. “Certainly not.
Just get dolled up, talk to him, flirt with him, and see whether he’ll flirt back.” “I’m probably half his age. I’d be worried if he didn’t flirt back.” A muffled snort made me glance down the hall. A guy a couple of years older than me leaned out of the stairwell doorway. Light hair just past his collar, denim jacket, boots, and a pair of snug-fitting worn blue jeans. He lifted a finger to his lips, shushing me, and I tried not to stare even if he was definitely stare-worthy. I turned back to Tina. “That guy who wanted to speak to Lucas. Did you let him in?” “Certainly not.
” She lowered her voice. “He looked a little dodgy.” “Was he in his midtwenties? Dark blond hair? Looks like he lost contact with his razor a few days ago?” The guy arched his brows, mock-indignant. “Yes, that’s him,” Tina said. “Now about my job offer …” “Spend the money on a shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret and make sure he’s too exhausted to look at twenty-year-olds.” Before she recovered from that suggestion, I took off. The guy waited until she was safely in her office, then strolled to meet me. “Dodgy?” he said. “I’m not the one wanting a hot chick to try seducing my new boyfriend.” He extended his hand.
“Jesse Aanes.” I’d heard of him. A half-demon PI out of Seattle who’d worked with Lucas a few times. Lucas said he was a good guy, which was the only seal of approval I needed. “What brings you to Portland?” I asked. “Cases. One that I’m working now and a new one I wanted to run past Lucas. Two birds, one stone. I left him a message, but he hasn’t returned it, which isn’t like him.” “He’s on vacation with Paige.
I confiscated their cell phones and the only messages I’m passing on are well wishes and death notices.” He laughed. “Good idea. They can use the break. Did that woman say Adam isn’t around either?” “He’s at a conference. It’s just me for the rest of the week.” Jesse hesitated and I knew what he was thinking—he needed help, but I wasn’t what he had in mind. “Why don’t you come up to the office,” I said. “Tell me what you’ve got.” I used my key card to unlock the stairwell door.
Yes, we have key card entry everywhere, plus a shitload of protective spells for the second floor. I undid them under my breath as we walked. As Tina said, we don’t get a lot of drop-in clients. We don’t want to. While we rarely turn away paying human customers, our clientele is almost exclusively supernatural and they don’t need an ad in the Yellow Pages to find us. Given that Lucas is heir to the Cortez Cabal, though, not everyone who finds us wants to hire us. Hence the heavy security. Jesse followed me up the stairs. “I guess the daughter of Eve Levine and Kristof Nast doesn’t need to worry about strangers attacking her in an empty office.” “If they do, I can always use them for my next ritual sacrifice.
Volunteers are so hard to come by.” It’s not the sort of crack you should make when you have a notorious dark witch for a mother and an equally notorious cutthroat sorcerer for a father. It was a test of sorts, and Jesse passed, just laughing and saying, “I’ll watch my step then.” “So what’s your power? I know you’re a half-demon.” “Agito.” Telekinesis, then. Agito was the second of the three levels, meaning he had mediocre abilities. Having dealt with a high-level Volo before, I was much more comfortable with an Agito. His powers explained how he’d snuck past Tina. Using telekinesis, he’d caught the door before it closed.
I’d have to talk to Lucas about that. Yet another argument against human tenants. I led Jesse into the meeting room. He didn’t sit down—didn’t even take off his jacket— just strode straight to the table and pulled files from his satchel. He set a crime-scene photo on the table. “Six months ago, two young women were murdered in Columbus, Washington, about an hour over the Oregon border. I doubt it made the Portland news. Nothing all that hinky about the killings. No sign of a serial killer or sexual sadism. Just the shooting death of two twenty-four-year-olds who led the kind of lives where you sort of figure, sooner or later”—he gestured at the photo of the two women—“this is how they’re going to end up.
” “Hookers?” He shook his head. “Just not exactly sterling members of society.” “Drugs?” I said. “Booze? Petty crime? All of the above?” “You got it. Nothing you haven’t seen a million times before. I was on that path myself until Lucas got me out of some trouble and persuaded me there were legal ways to use my skills. Anyway, these girls didn’t run into a Lucas. They were high school dropouts. Never held a job more than a few months. One had a kid at sixteen.
Both had short rap sheets and a string of boyfriends with longer ones.” I lifted the photo to take a closer look. The two bodies lay on a floor. Both were fully dressed, T-shirts covered in blood, each bearing a hole. Single gunshot wounds to the chest. One was on her back, eyes open, arms akimbo, legs twisted, a pool of blood under her. The other was stretched out, arms and legs only slightly bent, eyes closed. The blood under her was smeared. “Both shot, as you see,” Jesse said. “A through-and-through for the first, the bullet apparently lodging in the wall over there.
” He pointed to the edge of the photo. “They recovered another bullet from inside the second victim. The first one died immediately. The second didn’t.” “Doesn’t look like she tried to get away, though. Drugged?” “I don’t have tox screens.” “No sign of rape or torture, like you said. Looks execution style. A classic case of ‘Hey, bitch, you gonna pay for that dope or what?’ The answer, apparently, being ‘or what.’ ” “Yep, that’s what it looks like.
” When he didn’t go on, I glanced at him. “So what’s your interest? Is one of these girls a supernatural?” “Not as far as I know.” He set a second photo on the table. It was another murdered young woman, also early twenties, though one glance told me this girl didn’t sell herself for dime bags. I put the two photos side by side. All three bodies had been left in the same place. “Basement?” I asked. “Of an abandoned building.” I could hear Lucas’s voice. The fact that the deceased are found in a common location may speak less to a connection than to a simple matter of convenience.
Yes, Lucas really did talk that way. Drove me nuts, especially when I found myself slipping into the same speech patterns. On the plus side, I may not be an A student, but I sure as hell can sound like one. When I told Jesse my theory—small town, not a lot of places to put a body, someone had already used this one, so the second killer followed suit—he shrugged. “Possible, but in this particular small town, there’s no shortage of abandoned buildings.” “What’s the local murder rate?” “You’re looking at it. This double killing last fall, then the single one ten days ago. Before that, the last homicide was a domestic incident in 1999.” “Lot of drug activity in town?” “It has its share, maybe a little more. You can blame that on a depressed economy, though.
It’s not exactly a hotbed of gangsta activity. Mostly kids selling pot from their lockers, the laid-off guy down the road dealing out of his garage, that sort of thing.” “Do the police think it’s the same killer for all three?” “Yep, but only because otherwise they’d need to catch two murderers, and that’s more work than they care to contemplate.” “You’re going to make me guess what the supernatural connection is, aren’t you?” “I was just seeing if you’d pick it up. It’s—” I lifted a hand to cut him off. “Is the answer here?” I asked, pointing at the photos. He nodded. “Give me a minute.”