Authors: Kirsten Weiss
Tags: #Mystery, #occult, #Paranormal, #Tarot, #Lake Tahoe, #female sleuth
“How much?” Riga asked, reluctant.
Donovan named a sum and she gave a low whistle. The money was more than fair; it was a good year’s pay.
“Think of all the Tessie t-shirt and coffee mug sellers you’d be helping,” he rumbled, his voice low and seductive. “You’d be supporting an entire line of tourist schlock.”
“Tempting,” she said. But she felt a twinge of irritation. She could use the money, sure – though she didn’t like Donovan pointing that out. And the TV show could be fun. It wouldn’t be a long commitment and it would take her mind off her lost magic. So why did this feel like a trap, closing in upon her?
His arm stole around her waist. “Everybody wins,” he murmured. “You, the local businesses—”
“You?” She turned her head and their lips nearly touched. He smelled musky, intoxicating. All she had to do was lean forward…
“Of course, the casino will be featured in the show as well.”
“Of course.” Riga laughed wryly. “It does sound fun but I can’t do it.” She felt relief at the declaration. Of liberation?
Donovan scratched the small x-shaped scar on his chin, and looked at her thoughtfully. “That hair shirt doesn’t suit you.”
Riga almost looked down at her sweater, caught herself in time. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean it’s time to end this penance you’ve been on. Your life is worth more than that.”
“I’m not doing penance,” she said, indignant. “Look, I can’t go on TV like some cheap psychic. It’s with good reason magicians keep a low profile.”
“A vow of poverty?”
Riga gritted her teeth. “That’s unfair.”
“What’s unfair is that grotty cabin you rented,” he drawled. “Why won’t you just move in with me, here?”
Riga’s jaw settled in a mulish expression. It was an old argument. “Don’t try to manipulate me.”
“I’m just trying to make you see that what I want you to do is in your own best interests.”
Riga burst out laughing.
One side of his mouth pulled into a grin. “All the show wants is a telegenic paranormal investigator. They don’t need to know about your other skills. Just hear them out.”
She placed her palm upon his chest. “I can’t. I’m a person of interest in a murder investigation.”
He stared. “You’re joking.”
Riga explained about the Sheriff, about Lefebvre.
Donovan groaned. “What were you thinking? Why would you incriminate yourself like that?”
“I didn’t have much choice,” Riga said. “I don’t have a client. I can’t investigate it. Lady – Sarah Glass deserves justice. I was duty bound to tell the police what I could.”
“Bound by whom?” He released her and began to pace the hall. His booted feet were as silent as a panther’s on the wood plank floor. “Good God, Riga, do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Of course I do!” This was about more than justice for Sarah Glass. If the murder had been committed by one of Lefebvre’s men, Riga would be on their list as well. But her hands were tied. Rules were rules, and as much as she regretted entering into that magical bargain, as long as she had no client…
“On second thought,” she said, “I’ll do it.” The show would be her client. True, they’d be paying her to look for a lake monster rather than a killer but if they knew she was a person of interest in a murder by magic, they’d run with it.
“Now you’re just being perverse.”
“I need a client.”
He reached into his pocket and drew out a phone. “You need a lawyer.”
“A lawyer won’t be any help against the person who drew that sigillum.” She placed a hand over his, covering the phone. “Donovan, if Sarah’s killer knows of our relationship—“
“Everyone knows about our relationship. It was in the tabloids.”
“Then you may be in danger too.” Riga slipped an amulet on a silver chain into his palm. She closed his hand around it and felt a shiver of energy run through the talisman. It was Donovan’s now. “Please, wear this until it’s all over.”
He clenched his fist around the charm, unheeding. “Dammit, Riga. You can’t stay out in that cabin. It’s too isolated. You need to move in here, where I can protect you.”
“Aunt Riga?” A mop of unruly chestnut-colored hair peeked around the corner, followed by the form of a lithe teenage girl.
“Pen?” What was her niece doing here? Riga looked to Donovan for explanation.
Pen hurtled across the foyer and into Riga’s arms, knocking her a step backward. “Isn’t it awesome? Donovan said I could be an intern for the TV crew!”
“Surprise,” Donovan said, his voice flat.
Riga glared at him.
Chapter 4: Ashes
“Donovan talked to my Mom and she said it was okay,” Pen chattered. She wore olive green cargo pants and had unzipped her thin black motorcycle-style jacket to reveal a t-shirt that read: “When Seconds Count, the Police Are Only Minutes Away.”
The girl’s gray eyes snapped with excitement. “Even she saw that it was a great opportunity. The colleges I’m applying to like to see some film experience. I’ve got my YouTube channel, but everyone’s doing that these days. This internship will help set me apart.”
Riga slouched in a leather chair in front of the fire, wine glass in one hand. She nodded, making “mm hmm” sounds at random parts in Pen’s monologue. The fireplace was made of stone and big enough to walk inside, with antique skis arranged above the mantel. Riga’s eyes lost focus in the roaring flames.
If it hadn’t been for Brigitte, Riga wouldn’t have escaped the conflagration in Paris. The firemen had barely been able to contain it. In the morning, all that had been left of Lefebvre’s house was ashes and charred beams.
Riga felt fear rise in her throat – the emotion was inextricably linked to the memory. She had to stop this, return the memory to its box, focus on the here and now, the warm room, the glass of wine in her hand, Donovan and Pen beside her. She breathed deeply and felt her dread subside.
Lefebvre had to be dead. But if one of his servants was here, what did he want? The demon was giving him power – one way or another, it was always about power. But to commit the crime here, in Riga’s backyard… The murder circled back to Riga somehow. It had to.
“So have you talked to them yet?” Pen asked. “When do we start?”
“It’s still not a sure thing,” Donovan said, stretching his legs toward the fire, exposing the black cowboy boots beneath his tailored slacks. “We’ll speak to the producer tomorrow.”
“But they’ve got to take Riga! She’s a metaphysical detective. She’s perfect.”
The two argued about the merits of Riga as a TV personality, while Riga brooded. If the killer was one of Lefebvre’s men (or women – had there been any women?), and if the murder wasn’t a coincidence but rather a warning to Riga, then anyone near her could be in danger. She couldn’t put Pen in that position.
The cell phone in her pocket buzzed and she extracted it, wary. All the people who tended to phone her were in the room with her now. But the number belonged to her sister, Rebecca. She stood and walked outside, to the balcony, to take the call.
“Hi, Becca.” Riga’s breath frosted the night air and she shivered from the cold. She regretted leaving her jacket inside.
“Riga! How are you?”
“I’m good. Pen’s okay.” Riga gazed out over the lake, gleaming blackly like a giant Rorschach test.
“I know. I talked to her after she arrived. I just wanted to thank you and Mr. Mosse for taking her. So, how are things going with him? Are you two serious?”
She sat down on the edge of the fire pit and looked wistfully at the cold lumps of charred wood inside. “Becca, there may be a problem with Pen’s visit.”
Rebecca’s voice became hushed. “Has she told you?”
“Told me what?”
“Whatever she hasn’t been telling me. Riga, I don’t know what to do. Something’s wrong with Pen. She hasn’t been the same since last month, when she stopped seeing that counselor you suggested. Pen’s been having terrible nightmares, and then getting up at noon looking like death warmed over. When Mr. Mosse called about the possible internship – it was like getting the old Pen back. She was excited about something again, her old self. If she says anything to you – you’ll tell me, won’t you?”
“I’ll keep you posted,” Riga said, vague. She gazed into the room she’d just left. Pen and Donovan were in animated conversation, Pen gesturing expansively.
Pen had gained the ability to see ghosts in her late teens. It was a tough adjustment. Riga had begun to see when she was in college, and had an idea what Pen was going through. But rather than work with Pen herself, she had recommended a psychiatrist, who could hear ghosts. Rebecca had always been uncomfortable with Riga’s oddities, hadn’t liked Pen spending time with her. Unwilling to make waves in that relationship, Riga had told herself she wasn’t the right person to help her niece through it. But this visit to Tahoe was a startling concession on Rebecca’s part. Her sister was scared.
“Rebecca, I’m a person of interest in a murder investigation,” Riga blurted.
There was a long pause. “Does this mean you won’t be doing the TV show?”
“No, I think I’m still going to do it, if they’ll have me.”
“Well, that’s okay then.”
Riga was shocked into silence.
“Well, it doesn’t really affect Pen, does it?” Rebecca said. “She’s not under investigation. And she really does need this – for her own mental health and for college. Pen really wants this.”
Riga closed her eyes and counted to ten.
“So that’s that then,” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Sorry, the game just started. I’ll talk to you later.” Rebecca hung up.
Riga swore, glaring at the phone. She pocketed it and looked up. The sky blazed with stars.
I am on a balcony in Stateline, Nevada, United States, North America, planet Earth, circling a yellow sun in the Milky Way.
She imagined herself, a speck on a blue planet, hurtling through space, part of the cosmic dance. The thought centered her and she reached out with her mind, imagining the energies – blue from the sky, red from the earth – stretching across the lake. Riga probed for magic.
The energies were a relaxing visualization, nothing more. Her magic would not return so easily. She sighed and returned to the others.
“—Tessie is a prehistoric creature,” Pen was saying.
“And I think it was started by two off-duty cops, who were too drunk to tell a speedboat from a lake monster,” Donovan replied, glancing at Riga.
Riga closed the glass door behind her. “It might be a daimon.”
Pen looked skeptical. “A demon?”
“No, a daimon.” Riga returned to her chair, and sank into it, luxuriating in the buttery feel of the dark leather. “Very different. A daimon is something which is imaginary and real at the same time – a construct of the human mind.”
“A hallucination, you mean,” Pen said. “Well, that’s boring.”
“No, it’s real. And imaginary,” Riga said.
Pen propped her head on one fist. “I don’t get it. How can something be imaginary and real at the same time?”
“It’s about defining your terms,” Riga said. “Today we think of imagination as something unreal, but imagination is also a creative force.”
“You mean a group belief in Tessie might have created a real Tessie?” Donovan asked.
Another thing Riga admired about Donovan – he was quick to understand. She picked up her glass from the side table and swirled the wine. “It’s a theory. There was a case in England of scientists telling their subjects about a ghost story they had manufactured, and then taking them on a tour of the location of the supposed ghost. Predictably, several people on the tour reported experiencing the ghost, which hadn’t existed before the scientists created it. But the scientists didn’t count on what happened once the experiment was over. Tourists who had never heard their story, later reported seeing the ghost.”
Donovan removed his suit coat, and draped it over the arm of his leather chair. Riga saw for the first time he wore a bone-handled knife in his belt. The handle was a creamy ivory-color, and streaked with gray. He caught her look.
“It’s mammoth bone,” he said.
Pen’s eyes widened. “Really? As in wooly mammoth? That’s so cool! Can I see it?”
He carefully handed Pen the knife, keeping the blade pointed towards himself. Riga smiled. There were so many parts to Donovan, and one part was cowboy. He loosened his tie, extolling the virtues of mammoth bone, and Riga noted with relief that he was wearing the amulet. If there was a doppelgӓnger in Tahoe, it hadn’t gotten to Donovan. He wouldn’t be able to wear it if it had.
Pen returned the knife to Donovan, her look thoughtful.
A translucent form drifted upwards through the floor in front of the fireplace. It was barely recognizable as female, her skin charred and flaking, her dealer’s uniform tattered and dark with scorch marks. It looked as if sections of her hair had been wrenched out to expose bits of skull, glistening whitely.
Riga felt her gorge rise, swallowed. She reminded herself she’d seen worse and it would be rude to scream or vomit. She glanced at Pen to see how she was taking the apparition. Her niece tilted the mug in her hands and surveyed the dregs of her hot chocolate.
The ghost drifted toward Donovan. Her voice was whispery, as if her vocal chords had been damaged. “Hey, boss, I think I might have found something—”
“What a weird story,” Pen interrupted, examining her cup.
Donovan leapt to his feet. “Ah, Gwenn. This might not be the best time.”
“Who’s Gwenn?” Pen didn’t look up. “So the ghost in England might have been manufactured by people?”
“Sure boss,” the ghost – Gwenn – said. “I’ll come back later.” She drifted downwards and disappeared through the floor.
“Who’s Gwenn?” Riga had to be imagining the smell of burnt flesh, she thought.
“She’s an ex-employee,” Donovan said. “I’m helping her cross over. A lot of them are still hanging around the casino.”
It felt to Riga like a skip in a vinyl record, a gap, a wrongness. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew there was a lie in there – or at least a partial truth. Riga was unsure what to say. She’d never expected full disclosure from Donovan, she realized, because she’d never given it herself. Everyone deserved to keep some bits of their lives private. But it had been a long time since she’d been in a real relationship and she wondered if all of her old philosophies still held true – or if they ever had.