I dunked my head under the warm spray of my shower and rubbed shampoo into my hair, wondering where my next Hounding job, and paycheck, were coming from. I hadn’t been using much magic since I got back to town, and the bills were piling up. It was time to get on with my life, time to get on with tracking spells again.
I heard a distant pop, like a light bulb blowing, and all the lights in my apartment went out. I opened my eyes just as a stream of soap dripped into them.
“Ow, ow, ow.”
Outside, the wind howled past my bathroom window. We’d been having some bad storms lately–plain old wind storms, not wild magic. Probably a tree or landslide up in the west hills had knocked out the line or blown a transformer, throwing this part of Portland into a deep early-morning darkness. The wail of an alarm from a nearby business started up, and then an answering siren, and then two, joined in on the noise. A couple car alarms got busy.
I rinsed as much of the soap out of my eyes as I could, turned off the shower, and stumbled out of the tub. I hit my shin on the toilet bowl.
“Ow ” I groped for the sink, found the cool surface with my fingertips, and looked over my shoulder at the single frosted window behind me. No light, which meant the magic grid was down too. There were back up spells to power the streetlights in case of blackout–spells the city paid the price for. Weird they hadn’t kicked on yet.
I groped my way along the sink, the wall, light switch, and the towel hanging on the back of the door. I knew there was no one in the room with me, no one in my apartment. Still, I did not want to be alone and naked in the dark.
“Allie,” a voice whispered, so close to my cheek I could feel the cold exhale.
I bolted out into the hallway and turned. It was so dark I couldn’t see anything.
I traced a glyph for Light in the air in front of me, completely forgetting to set a Disbursement for the pain that magic was going to put me through. Pain, I could deal with later. Light, I needed now.
The hallway, hells, the entire apartment, lit up like sunlight on snow.
I was not alone.
My dead father stood right there on the yellow ducky bath mat in front of my shower. It didn’t look like death had done him any favors.
Sure, he still wore a dark business suit–I’d rarely seen him out of business dress–and he was clean shaven and gray haired. Other than that, he looked like a hastily drawn interpretation of himself--his skin too pale, his green eyes gone so light as to be white. Dark, dark shadows caught beneath his eyes and pooled in the hollows of his face. He scowled. He was angry.
Angry at me.
Well, apparently death didn’t do much for a person’s mood either.
He stretched out his right hand, traced the first strokes of something in the air–maybe a glyph–and then moved, fast, faster than any living person, until he was standing in front of me, close, so close his hand pressed against my forehead.
I raised my arms to keep him away, push him away, make him stay away from me. I could smell him–or maybe it was just the memory of him–and taste him, leather and wintergreen, on the back of my throat.
I yelled, tasting more wintergreen as he leaned in closer, all ice and bone–cold and damp against my naked wet skin. The Light spell flickered out, probably because I was too busy panicking to concentrate, and magic does not tolerate that sort of thing.
The apartment plunged back into blackness. I could still feel my dad’s hands on my arms.
I ran backward, scrambling to get away from the cold and wintergreen of his angry touch. My back hit the hall wall and I had no where else to go.
“Seek,” he whispered against my cheek.
Streetlights snapped on–the city’s spells finally kicking in–and poured blue light through the windows.
My dad was gone. Cut off mid-sentence like a dropped call.
I gulped down air, shaking with more than cold, and backed into my bedroom, needing to be dry, dressed, covered, protected, safe, and the hells away from here as quickly as possible.
I’d been groped by a ghost. My dad’s ghost.
My hands shook, and my heart beat so hard, I couldn’t breathe. My Dad touched me. And I’d been naked.
I fumbled into a pair of jeans, my bra, a T-shirt, and wool sweater. Then socks and boots. I picked up the baseball bat I kept near my bed. I didn’t know if a baseball bat would work on a ghost, but I was willing to find out.
I stood there, breathing hard, the bat over one shoulder, and stared through the empty hallway at my empty bathroom.
“Dad?” I asked.
Let’s just go over the facts: I’d seen a ghost. My dad’s ghost.
And he had seen me. Touched me. Spoken to me.
Okay, that was so far down Creepy Lane that it had intersected with Scaring the Hell Out of Me Avenue. I hated that avenue.
I shook out my hands, switching the bat from one to the other, and tried to calm my breathing. Take it easy, Allie, I told myself. Ghosts aren’t real.
Yeah, well, that felt real.
Maybe seeing him was some sort of weird leftover guilt from not being there when he died. Not being there for his funeral or his burial. No, I know I wouldn’t have gone to his funeral even if I’d been able to. I was still angry at him then, angry that he had let his hunger for money and power hurt everyone in his life, including me.
As a matter of fact, I was still angry about that.
The lights in my apartment–regular electric–weren’t working yet. I didn’t want to pull on magic again for light because when you used magic, it used you right back. There was always a price–always a pain to pay. Why give myself a headache when I could just light a candle? Problem was, my candles were all the way across the apartment in the living room.
I strode out into the hallway, bat ready to swing. I looked in the bathroom–no one there– and walked (not too quickly I’ll add) over to the side table next to my ratty couch. I put down the bat and found a box of matches. I lit several candles on my book shelf, on top of my TV, and on the little round dining table by the window. For good measure, I pulled back the curtains, letting in as much light from the street as possible.
Blue light from the streetlamps caught in the whorls of metallic color that ribboned around my fingertips up my arm and side of my neck to the very corner of my right eye. It was still strange to see the marks magic had left on me–brighter and more iridescent than tattoos. Stranger still to feel magic heavy inside me, a constant weight that moved and stretched beneath my skin.
Even though my right arm didn’t itch anymore from the magic flowing through me, my left arm, banded with black at my elbow, my wrist, and at each knuckle, was always a little cold and went numb when I used magic too much.
I wasn’t sure what all of it meant–because no one I’d talked to had ever seen anything like this, like me. People who try to hold magic in their bodies die from it. Horribly. And I’d done my best to stay away from doctors who might be curious enough to want to take me apart to find out why I wasn’t dead yet.
I rubbed at my arm–the right with the whorls of colors–and scanned the street below.
Rain and wind? Yes. Ghosts? No.
The last room to check was the kitchen. There were no windows in the kitchen, so I picked up a candle in a glass jar and paused in the entryway to the kitchen. My apartment door stood to the right of me, my kitchen lost in shadows ahead of me. I lifted the candle. Yellow light pushed aside blocks of shadow. Nothing.
The phone rang. I jumped so hard, wax sloshed over the candle’s wick and smothered the flame.
The phone rang again, and a wash of cold sweat slicked my skin. It was just the phone.
It rang again.
I didn’t want to answer it.
Could ghosts use the phone?
Okay, now I was being ridiculous.
I put the candle down on the half wall between the kitchen and foyer and jogged to the phone in the living room. Caught it up on the fourth ring.
“Hello?” I said, my voice a little too high.
“Allie Beckstrom?” a low male voice asked.
I recognized that voice. Detective Makani Love had spent a good deal of his childhood in Hawaii and still hadn’t lost the particular rhythm to his words. Plus, I could hear the ring of phones behind him, then another voice, female, and likely his partner, Lia Payne. I think the Police Department had stuck them together for a laugh–Love and Payne–but they’d turned into such a good team, they hadn’t asked to be reassigned.
“Hey, Mak,” I squeaked.
“Is everything okay? Are you okay?”
I swallowed and worked hard to get my voice down an octave or so.
“Yes. I’m fine. Just, uh...kind of startled when the phone rang. Is the power out over there?”
“No,” he said. “But we heard part of town was down. You dark?”
The lights flicked back on, and my computer on the desk in the corner hummed back to life.
“Not any more,” I said. “It just came back on. So what’s up?”
“We need you to come down to the station to give your statement regarding the death of your father.”
I’d never filed an official report. See, I’d been there the day my father died. I may even have been the last one who saw him alive–except for his killer. But since I’d spent the next several days being chased by the people who killed him, I hadn’t had a chance to actually talk to the police about the last time I’d seen him.
Well, the last time I’d seen him alive.
I wondered if Mak believed in ghosts.
“Can it wait until later? I haven’t had breakfast yet and was hoping to hunt down some leads on Hounding jobs this morning.”
“No. It’s been long enough, yah? You’ve been back in town, what, a week now, almost two? That’s patience on our side, you know. We need you this morning. Can you get here in an hour?”
“Will there be any decent coffee in the building?” Love and I weren’t best buddies, but I usually ended up going to him when I did Hounding jobs that involved someone doing something illegal. He and Payne were two of the few police officers I knew who were cross-trained to handle magical crime enforcement.
“Oh sure. Best coffee in the city, yah. Dug a pit this morning, roasted it with my own hands over the fire. Fresh just for you.”
“Right.” I glanced out my living room window and through the bare tree limbs that spread across my view of the street and buildings on the other side. It was six o’clock on a late November morning, and still dark. Rain gusted sideways past the window, flashing like gold confetti in the headlights of slow-moving traffic crawling toward downtown Portland, and the freeway beyond. The police station wasn’t all that far from my apartment, but I didn’t have a car. The bus ran every half hour, and would take me straight to the station doors.
It was doable.
“I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes.”
“Good. And, Allie?”
“Don’t leave town. And be careful.”
A chill ran down my arms. Why would he say that? I wouldn’t skip town. And I was always careful. Well, as careful as the situation allowed. “I’ll be there in forty-five.”
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