Authors: Kirsten Weiss
Tags: #Mystery, #occult, #Paranormal, #Tarot, #Lake Tahoe, #female sleuth
The café’s glass door was locked, a “Closed” sign dangling from its inside handle. Riga knocked on the glass, her breath frosting the night air. The skin at the back of her neck prickled and she turned, slowly scanning the parking lot.
It was empty.
A copse of pines threatened the edge of the lot, looming silhouettes against the night. Had a shadow shifted beneath them?
The door rattled, startling her, and she whipped around. Tara stood framed in the glass door. She unlocked a series of bolts with keys from a ring weighted down with Ankhs and other mystical symbols. Tara shot the last bolt, and pulled the door open, stepping aside so Riga could enter. Tara’s eyes were red, her round face blotchy from crying.
Riga stepped inside, shutting the door behind her. “What’s wrong?”
Tara hugged her, and Riga awkwardly returned the embrace. The woman was chin height to Riga, and her graying hair had escaped its braid, tickling Riga’s nose.
The woman choked on a sob and stepped away, hurrying to the counter for a tissue. “Riga, thanks for coming. It’s Pyewacket.” She dabbed at her eyes. “Someone – some bastard, has killed him. I found him on top of the dumpster behind the store.” Tara began crying in earnest now, loud, hiccupping sobs.
Riga’s mind raced. “Pyewacket, your… cat?” she guessed.
Tara nodded. “He was strangled.”
Riga stiffened, feeling a swell of anger. “That’s awful,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry. Where is Pyewacket now?”
“I didn’t know what to do. That’s why I called you. Maybe it was silly, calling a private detective over a cat, but it seemed so malicious. I just panicked. Pyewacket is still there.” She nodded toward a rear door.
Riga gestured with her thumb. “May I…?”
Tara nodded and reached for another tissue.
Riga slipped down a short, narrow hallway stacked high with cardboard boxes and out the rear door, which she left propped open with the rubber doorstop. Energy savings be damned, she wasn’t going to get locked outside. The shops backed up against a thin strip of macadam, which ended in the pine forest.
The dead cat lay on top of the bin, its fur matted with blood, a sharp wire knotted around its throat. Riga felt a surge of hatred toward whoever had done it and forced herself to look closely, swallowing the bile which rose up inside her. There were no signs of torture, aside from the mode of death itself. The wire seemed ordinary enough. Riga took her better-than-Swiss army knife out of her satchel, flipped open the wire cutting attachment, and snipped a length of the wire, then deposited it in one of the baggies she’d gotten in the habit of carrying with her to handle evidence.
A branch cracked. Her eyes searched the darkness and she strained to hear. She saw no one, heard no echoing footsteps.
Riga backed inside and locked the door, double checking that it was shut tight. When she returned to the café interior, she found Tara slumped in a chair by the same table Riga had sat at with the other Tea and Tarot members.
“I don’t think Pyewacket suffered much,” Riga lied. “Do you have any idea who might have done this?”
Tara blew her nose. “No. Should I call the police?”
“I don’t think the police will be able to do much for you, but yes, you should file a report.” She pulled out a chair and sat down beside her. “You never know, there might have been other incidents.”
“Will the police want to see Pyewacket? As evidence?”
Riga doubted it. “Best to just call and find out.”
Riga pretended not to listen as Tara made the call. The café owner had to repeat her story three times, but eventually she was connected to Deputy Night. Riga heard her promise to come down to the station the next day and file an official report.
Tara hung up the phone and looked at Riga, her hazel-colored eyes dark with pain. “He doesn’t need to see Pyewacket.”
Riga said nothing.
“I can’t just throw Pyewacket in the dumpster,” Tara said brokenly. “He was like family to me.”
“Have you got an empty box? Maybe some old towels to line it with?”
Tara nodded, and shuffled behind the counter. She bent down behind it and reemerged with a half-empty box of industrial paper napkins and two cheerfully printed tea towels. She pulled the napkins out and Tara pushed box and towels across the counter toward Riga. “Thank you,” she muttered.
Riga returned to the garbage bins and wrapped Pyewacket in a towel, then carefully lowered him into the box. The cat was stiff and cold.
She returned indoors, the cat inside the box, its flaps folded discreetly shut. “Tara, who might have done this?”
“How should I know?”
“Did anyone have it out for Pyewacket?”
“He was a cat! Cat’s don’t make enemies!”
Riga had an elderly aunt who would beg to differ, and had a running battle going with the neighborhood cats who liked her garden too well. “Okay, then if not Piewacket, this was directed at you.”
“Me? That’s ridiculous! What are you saying?”
“Killing someone’s pet is the act of a disturbed person.”
“Well, I know that! You’re a detective – is that all you can tell me?”
Riga forced a smile, tried to quash her annoyance. Tara was upset. Allowances should be made. “Should I help you take this to your car?”
Tara sniffed, and nodded. “I guess I’ll bury him in my yard. He loved climbing the trees.”
Tara struggled into her long parka, then closed the café. Riga shifted the box in her arms, waiting.
As they walked to Tara’s Honda, Riga asked, “When’s the last time you saw Pyewacket?”
“I fed him this morning. Then time got away from me – the morning rush, lunch… I never had to worry about him. He was so independent, always took care of himself.”
“Do you know someone named Lynn Chen?” Riga asked abruptly.
Tara opened the door to her car and turned, her brows sketching upward in surprise. “Lynn? Sure. She’s an energetics worker, specializes in Chi Gung. She comes to our meetings sometimes but she lives in Truckee, so it’s hard for her to get over here. Why?”
Riga stared, thunderstruck. It had been a shot in the dark; she hadn’t expected Tara to actually know Lynn. But it made sense that the killer would strike magical practitioners. He’d believe the power he’d absorb from the murders would be stronger, infused with his victim’s energies.
“Tara, the police just found her body. Lynn is dead, murdered.”
Tara stepped away from her, bumping against the car door. Her eyes widened with confusion, her mouth made an O. “What? Lynn? What are you talking about? She can’t be dead! I saw her last month! She was at our meeting.”
Riga just looked at her.
“But it can’t be,” Tara continued. “She must have done something, made someone angry.”
Riga knew this was normal, a defense mechanism, but it irritated her, nonetheless. After someone was killed, the people close to the crime often looked for reasons it was the victim’s fault. After all, if the victim was to blame, had done something wrong, the survivors were safe. She watched Tara grope for an explanation.
“She was having an affair,” Tara blurted. “I did a reading for her about it. He said he was going to leave his wife, but I could see he wasn’t.”
“Do you know his name?” she asked, feeling suddenly weary. It pained her to think of Lynn having a personal life, friends, lovers, dreams that now wouldn’t be fulfilled.
“No. He was a banker, one of her clients, or she was one of his. That’s all I know.”
“Two members of Tea and Tarot are dead and now you’re being harassed. Audrey was right. There may be a connection between the harassment and the murders. And now someone’s killed your cat. This is an escalation and I don’t like where it’s going.”
“It’s just – no one’s bothered Lily. And I never heard Lynn complain of harassment. You’re seeing connections that aren’t there.”
“Maybe. But if I’m right, the consequences could be pretty awful. Is there somewhere you can go? Just get out of town for a bit to get away from all this? Take a vacation?”
“I’m not leaving.” Tara straightened away from the Honda. She snatched the box from Riga’s hands. “I’m not letting whoever did this win. They’re not going to scare me off. This is just – you’re just paranoid.” She breathed heavily. “It’s not your fault, you’re a PI, that’s what you’re wired to be. But just because–”
“Just because two people in the Tea and Tarot group have been murdered and someone killed your cat?” she asked, frustrated. Why couldn’t Tara see that this was a threat?
Tara piled into the small car, her bulky parka billowing around her. “Thanks for coming by Riga,” she said, her voice icy. “I’ll see you around.”
The woman slammed the car door shut.
Riga cursed under her breath. Denying the existence of a threat wouldn’t make it go away. It just made Tara more vulnerable. She watched Tara’s car swing out of the parking lot. Her rear tires skidded on a patch of ice, slewing sideways, before her taillights straightened out and were absorbed into the highway traffic.
She walked to her Lincoln and got inside quickly, feeling better once the doors were locked shut. Her head throbbed and she felt a surge of anger – at Tara, at herself. At least she had tomorrow to look forward to – a day off, to spend with Pen and Donovan. Riga pulled into the traffic more slowly, feeling her tires spin briefly beneath her. Her gaze darted to her rearview mirror, but in the darkness she couldn’t tell if she was being followed; it was impossible to differentiate between one pair of headlights and the next. Still, she had a nagging feeling she was being followed, a feeling which grew the closer she got to the casino.
The parking lot at the casino was full, forcing her to park at the rear, in the shadows beneath a stand of tall pines. She could have let the valet deal with it but she didn’t like other people driving her car and didn’t like having to wait for the valet to retrieve it for her.
She exited slowly, careful of whatever injury she’d done her torso. Snow slid off the branch of a tree making a soft flump upon the ground, and she jerked in response. Pain flared in her side.
The pavement was slick, and the yellowish lights of the parking lot cast a golden gleam on the asphalt. Riga wound through the parked cars, her cheeks stung by the cold. She halted, feeling a familiar prickling at the back of her neck, and scanned the lot. The night was silent, and the entrance to the casino too far away. She lengthened her strides, walking in the center of one of the drive paths to give herself more space, more reaction time should someone rush her.
Footsteps echoed behind her and she picked up her pace. The footsteps sped up as well. She dropped her bag to the pavement and turned on her heel, her fingers curled, dragonlike, into stiff claws.
She exhaled noisily, feeling the pounding in her heart slow. It was Cesar, the elevator man. His fine webbing of scars shone white against his dark skin, now pinked with cold, and he moved toward her with a quick economy of motion in spite of his bulk. “Miss Hayworth! It’s me, Cesar. I’ve been following you since you left your cabin. I think I panicked you. Sorry.”
Her eyes narrowed to crinkled slits. Just because she’d been prepared to rip his face off, didn’t mean she was panicked. “You’ve been following me,” Riga said, her voice flat.
“Mr. Mosse, Ma’am, he asked me to.”
“Oh, did he?” Riga’s voice had fallen to sub-zero now.
“He’s a public figure, Ma’am. There’ve been incidents.”
And if Riga didn’t catch hold of her temper, there was going to be another “incident.” Riga’s jaw clenched. She understood Donovan’s need for personal protection, understood why he was worried about her. But why the devil didn’t he tell her he’d put a man on her?
“He said he’d call you and let you know,” Cesar said.
Riga picked her bag off the pavement, dug through it for her cell phone. Oh. Three messages from Donovan. She hadn’t heard it ring. But she’d spoken with Donovan just before she’d left the cabin – why hadn’t he said anything then?
“You said you followed me from the cabin?”
He nodded. “Guess I wasn’t very subtle, but I wasn’t exactly trying to sneak around.”
“Huh. Thanks for letting me know you were my stalker.” She dropped her phone into the depths of her bag. “I didn’t see you pull into the lot behind me. Where did you park?” It irked her that he’d managed to get so close without her seeing.
“Once I knew where you were going, I pulled into the employee lot and walked over. You were never out of my sight.”
He may have meant the comment to be reassuring but it pissed her off. Not his fault she let him get the jump on her, she reminded herself. She waved her arm towards the casino in invitation, and he followed her in.
Workers hung pine garlands on the doors. Festive, but it wasn’t yet Thanksgiving. At least they’d held off until after Halloween, Riga thought.
They walked through the dimly lit casino. Somewhere a siren went off, proclaiming a winner. They turned a corner and entered the long corridor to Donovan’s private elevator. The sound level dropped and with it, the budding pain in Riga’s temples. They stopped before the elevators.
Cesar waved the card on his lanyard before the electronic eye. “I hear you were in Afghanistan.”
“Iraq,” he said.
“Private contractor or military?”
“Hearts and minds.” The rebuilding effort in Afghanistan had been big, expensive, and ineffectual to Riga’s mind and she didn’t like remembering her role in it.
He nodded in understanding.
The elevator doors slid open. Another uniformed man built like a tank stood inside. She entered the elevator and he bobbed his head in greeting. Cesar waited outside, watching until the doors slid shut.
They rode up to the penthouse, Riga finding relief in the silence. When she stepped outside the elevator, however, the sound of angry masculine shouting assaulted her ears. Riga followed the raised voices to Donovan’s study. The thick paneled wood door was shut, but Reuben’s voice was clearly audible through it.