Authors: Kirsten Weiss
Tags: #Mystery, #occult, #Paranormal, #Tarot, #Lake Tahoe, #female sleuth
Riga read it twice, then quietly shut down her computer.
She heard a soft sigh behind her and turned. Shadows stirred in a corner of the room and Gwenn appeared.
The ghost looked about. A piece of burnt skin flaked off, turned gooey, dripped to the geometric carpet as ectoplasm. “I’m sorry to bother you. I was just looking for Mr. Mosse.”
“He’s in Philadelphia. He said he was following a clue you’d found for him.”
Gwenn tugged on a lock of hair by her temple. It came free and dropped to the floor. “I wish… He’s left already?”
“Yeah. Is there a problem?”
“No, no problem, I guess.” She sighed, a low, mournful sound. “He’s had other women here before but you seem different. I’m glad.”
Riga was uncertain how to take that. Sure, she knew there had been women before. She just didn’t like being reminded of it. “You watch out for him, don’t you?”
The ghost nodded. “I knew him when he was a kid, saw him around the casino. Funny little guy.” She smiled, a ghastly rictus grin.
“Is that why you’re helping him?”
“Yes, that and… There’s something I have to do, but I can’t remember...” Gwenn looked at Riga intently. “He’s a good man.” The ghost drifted through a wall and was gone.
Riga gazed at the wall for a minute, thoughtful. She dug her phone from her satchel and called Donovan. It rang three times and went to his voice mail.
“Donovan, I had a vision of Vinnie, the ghost you crossed over last month. I think… He wanted to tell you something but the vision was confused. Just… Be careful, okay? And call me. I miss you.” She hung up, slipping the phone into the pocket of her slacks.
Gray clouds massed above the mountains, and she tied a wooly red scarf above the collar of her pea coat. Donovan’s minions had dried and pressed the thick coat overnight after its soaking in the lake. She sniffed one of the sleeves. It smelled like lavender. Riga could get used to this.
Pen came to lounge in the doorway. “Where are you going?” She studied her fingernails.
Dissatisfied with the effect, Riga undid her scarf and retied the knot. “Church of the New Dawn. I need to talk to the Reverend.”
Pen looked up, her brow wrinkled in confusion. “Do you think he’s involved in the murders? I thought you said it was a magician or necromancer or something.”
She tucked the scarf inside her coat and buttoned it. “I’m keeping an open mind. Stay out of trouble, okay?” She smiled at her niece as she strode through the doorway, past her.
The elevator doors slid open; there was a new man today. She smiled at him, stepped inside. As the elevator descended, she considered asking Cesar to come with her, but decided it would be too much trouble for them both. She was going to a church. What could happen?
The highway was slick and the traffic crawled. Riga tapped her fingers on the wheel, impatient, then reminded herself that her snow driving skills weren’t exactly up to par, and tried to enjoy her quick glimpses of the lake through the pines. Tahoe’s choppy waters had dulled to cold steel beneath a lowering mist.
She turned into the church parking lot, wincing when the car hit a pothole, scraping its carriage on the macadam. The church’s green van was parked in front of the main door and Riga pulled up beside it.
The church looked Finnish or Russian orthodox, built of honey-colored wood, with an onion dome and bell tower perched atop its steep roof. Yesterday’s layer of snow frosted the eaves, making a gingerbread church.
She wriggled the phone out of her pocket and checked her messages. Nothing. Her finger hovered over the buttons. Maybe Donovan hadn’t noticed her voicemail?
Maybe she was devolving into an obsessed teenage girl.
She blew her breath out, put the phone in her pocket of her pea coat. He’d call when he could.
Riga felt a prickling sensation at the back of her neck.
Someone was watching.
She scanned the lot, saw no one. Probably Cesar again, playing cat and mouse. Or perhaps Brigitte, though the gargoyle usually kept her promises.
Riga shook off her apprehension and walked up the wooden plank steps, her footsteps sounding hollowly beneath her. The front door was unlocked and Riga strode into a small antechamber, with stairs off to each side and open double-doors that led into the church proper. Three men worked in the far corner of the church. They wore heavy jackets and wooly scarves, and set up instruments for a band: drums, an electric guitar, and a keyboard.
“Hi, guys,” Riga called. “I’ve got an appointment with Reverend Carver. Know where I can find him?”
One of them pointed up. “Take the stairs on the left. His office is above the choir loft.”
She jogged upstairs, through a choir loft with a massive pipe organ and plastic folding chairs in prim rows: the sacred and profane, she thought wryly. Riga climbed a second set of stairs, to a door with a thin metallic strip at eye level that said: OFFICE. She rapped on it with the back of her knuckles and was met with a deafening silence. She knocked again, more forcefully. Nothing. Riga checked her watch. She wasn’t early. Riga knocked and turned the knob, eased the door open, slipped inside.
The room glowed, its burnished wood golden even in the weak light. A plain wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the desk. The windows were high and narrow, illuminating the octagonal room with shimmering rectangular blocks of light. The reverend lay curled upon the floor in the center of the room. Blood pooled beneath his left ear.
Riga felt her legs go weak. “Oh, hell,” she said.
A deep crevasse split the skull beneath his fair hair, but Riga knelt beside him, pulled one of her gloves off with her teeth, and pressed two fingers to the pulse point in his neck. No pulse. His flesh was as frigid as the room. She lightly touched his forearm, putting gentle pressure on it at first, then pressing harder. The body was stiff with rigor mortis and she felt a sudden flush of rage. If she’d been more aggressive investigating the case, hadn’t chalked the Reverend up as a caricature of intolerance, had taken him more seriously, she might have prevented this.
Riga tugged her leather gloves on and made a swift tour of the room, verifying the killer wasn’t hiding under the desk or behind a filing cabinet. She was alone. The room was messy with boxes piled in corners and a desk overflowing with books and papers, but didn’t appear ransacked. A metallic seventies-era ceiling lamp hung from the low ceiling and Riga noticed a trap door set in the roof beside it.
She pulled her phone from the pocket of her pea coat and dialed 911, gave a skeptical dispatcher the bad news. Repeated it twice.
The door swung inward.
One of the men from below stood framed in the open door, his mouth agape. “You killed him,” he said.
“No. I found him. I’m on the phone with the police now.” She held the phone up, showing him.
Shock and anger flitted across his thickset features. “You killed him!” His face turned ugly. He took a step toward her. “The Reverend told me about you, told me you were coming. I should never have let you go up.”
Riga took a quick step back. “I found him like this. I’m on the phone now with the police.”
“Witch!” He lunged forward, knocking the phone from her hand.
She front-kicked him low in the gut, sending him staggering backward through the doorway. He landed on his ass on the hardwood floor. Riga slammed and locked the door before he could recover. The man pounded on the door and shouted for the others below. She heard him throw himself against the door.
The door shuddered beneath the man’s blows, but it was solid and withstood the attack. There was a trick to breaking down doors and her assailant didn’t seem to know it.
Riga sagged against the desk, blood pounding in her ears. She took a deep breath, trying to clear the adrenaline racing through her after the swift fight.
Tinny squawks emanated from beneath the desk and she knelt down. Her phone. The dispatcher was still on the line. Riga bent and grabbed it, hung up. The police station wasn’t far; they’d be here soon enough. She needed to record the crime scene before they arrived.
Riga found a calendar on the Reverend’s desk and took pictures of the final pages with her phone, then shots of the body. She heard other voices, more pounding on the door. The man had been joined by his fellow musicians. Riga tried to ignore them and checked the desk drawers. She found pencils, church bulletins, blank paper.
She hurried to the bookshelf. Its top shelves were lined with religious texts and the bottom with an occult collection that rivaled her own. Riga knelt and ran one gloved finger across the latter, pausing briefly before a copy of the witch hunter’s bible, the
. Rapidly, she drew her finger onward until she felt a book by Agrippa that was out of alignment with the others. She removed it from the shelf. It fell open to a page titled:
Of Goetia and Necromancy
. Riga examined the book more closely, found a dog-eared page and flipped to it:
Of the Orders of Evil Spirits, and of their Fall and Divers Natures.
The Reverend had read up on summoning demons. She hadn’t told him about the sigil yesterday and the police hadn’t made that information public. How had he known? If he had been responsible for the deaths, then who killed him?
Feeling ill, Riga hung her head in her hands. The Reverend had spoken some truths to her. He’d identified an evil in their midst, had understood that people involved with magic had become its focus. She laughed bitterly. Riga hadn’t liked the Reverend, still thought he’d been bigoted and small-minded, but he’d been right in a way. And she’d played the fool.
The killer was winning, still a step ahead.
The men on the other side of the door had gone quiet and she raised her head, listening. She walked to one of the high windows and stood on tiptoe, peering out, but the angle was wrong. Riga couldn’t see the parking lot, or if the police had arrived yet.
She continued her examination of the murder scene. One of the walls was covered in multi-colored flyers from past church events: Fourth of July picnics, potlucks, Bible classes, Christmas chorals. Partially hidden in the mix was a small bulletin board with grainy photos thumb-tacked to it. Riga moved in for a closer look, her eyes drawn to a photo of herself on the beach, talking to a policeman with his back to the camera.
So someone had been watching her that day. The Reverend? That would explain how he’d gotten to the station so quickly after Lynn Chen’s body was found. How long had he been following her?
There were photos of the other women in the Tea and Tarot group too: a shot through Audrey’s window of her gesticulating to someone. She could only see the other person’s arm in the shot; it looked like a man’s, wearing a shiny black jacket. Then another photo of Audrey bundled up against the cold, outside, arguing with one of the Reverend’s protestors. Deputy Night had interposed himself between them, as if to cool the parties down. There was Riga again, exiting the police station, alone. It must have been taken when she’d gone to sign her statement. A picture of Lily’s tiny shack: the door was open and Riga could just make out the heel of a black shoe, entering. Riga coughed, clearing her throat. Tara hadn’t been neglected. There was a picture of her through the tea shop window, taken from some distance. Cars were between the window and the photographer, but she could clearly be seen in the window, chin tucked, hugging herself tightly.
Creepy. And interesting. Riga rubbed her eyes. Maybe it would all make sense to her after she got some sleep. She took a photo of the board, then close up photos of each picture, e-mailing all the pictures she’d taken to her own account and then deleting them from her phone. She coughed.
And then her brain understood what her senses had been trying to deny. Fire. She looked about. Smoke curled from beneath the door. As if in a dream, she walked to it, placed the back of her hand upon the wood. It was hot. Her hand dropped to her side and she stared, disbelieving. Tensing, she placed it on the door again and ran her hand down toward the bottom. She could still feel the heat, which meant there was a lot more heat on the other side. That exit was blocked by fire.
She swallowed and turned, looked hopelessly at the windows, too high and too narrow. A purple banner hung in the corner:
He Is Risen!
She unhooked the banner, jammed it beneath the door. It should be wet, she thought uselessly. But it would give her time, perhaps enough for rescue.
And then she remembered. There was another door. She crawled atop the desk, stretched upwards, her fingers scraping the ceiling, catching the metal latch. She tugged upon it. The metal was cold and unyielding. She pulled again, hanging her full weight from the latch, her knees curling beneath her, and the door swung open. A ladder slid downward with a rattling sound, and with it, a blast of cold air. Riga felt lightheaded with relief.
She scrambled up the ladder, pulling it up and the door shut behind her. Riga straightened, and her skull struck something solid. Eyes stinging with tears, she fumbled above her and touched cold metal. A bell. She was in the bell tower. It was open to the air on all sides and Riga walked to the waist-high railing and leaned over. There was a ledge about eighteen inches in width on the outside of the rail, circumnavigating the octagonal tower. Beneath her was the peaked roof of the church, its shingles slick with patches of snow and ice. Four stories below, in the parking lot, a small group of people stared up at her, silent and unmoving. A chill rippled through her.
She’d called 911; the dispatcher would automatically send police, fire, and ambulance services. Most ladder trucks could reach between the third and fifth floors. Soon the cavalry would be here and she’d be off the roof, she told herself.
A drift of white smoke obscured her vision and she looked down. Smoke poured through the cracks between the floorboards.