Grave Visions (Alex Craft #4)

by Kalayna Price

Chapter 1

The first time I raised a shade for profit, my client fainted. Since then, I’ve tried to better prepare clients for their encounter with the dead.

It doesn’t always work.

“You son of a bitch,” Maryanne Johnson yelled as she slammed her palm against the edge of my circle. “I knew you were sleeping with her.”

The shade of her late husband didn’t respond. He sat motionless above his grave, his face empty and his gaze distant. That seemed only to irritate the woman more, and she slammed her hand against my circle again.

“Ms. Johnson, calm down. He can’t understand your anger. He’s dead.”

If she heard me, she gave no indication, and I shuddered as she hit the circle again, the impact vibrating through my magic. The circle wouldn’t hold much longer, and if it failed, I’d be standing in the middle of a graveyard with my shields wide-open. Not a good thing.

“If you don’t take a step back, I’m going to have to end the ritual,” I said, moving around the grave so that I partially obscured her view of the shade.

She didn’t listen.

“This is between him and me.” She rummaged through her purse, muttering curses under her breath. When she looked up again, her smile was dark. She lifted a small revolver, leveling it at the shade. “How long were you with that hussy?”

And that’s my cue to end the ritual.

I didn’t repeat the question to the shade, because he would have answered. He would have had no choice. Shades were just memories with no will or consciousness. Matthew Johnson might have kept his mistress a secret during life, but he couldn’t hide the truth in death. And I had the feeling, regardless what his answer might be, it could only make this situation worse.

I didn’t need that.

“Rest now,” I whispered under my breath as I reached out with the part of me that sensed the dead and reversed the flow of magic that gave the shade form. The words weren’t strictly necessary, but I’d used them for so many years, they were now part of my ritual, producing a near-Pavlovian response with my magic. The shade dissolved, the life heat I’d imbued in it rushing down the well-worn path of my psyche.

“No. No. Bring him back.” The woman railed against the edge of my circle. “He died too easy the first time.” Without her target of choice visible, she swung the gun in my direction. “I paid for this ritual. Now bring him back.”

I was seeing the land of the dead overlaying reality, but even if the revolver looked rusted and ruined in my sight, I had no doubt it was in fine working order in mortal reality. Ms. Johnson herself might have had enough innate magical ability that my circle stopped her from crossing into my ritual space, but unless her gun was loaded with charmed ammo—doubtful—my circle would do nothing to stop a bullet. Which meant I had to defuse this situation. Fast.

“Ms. Johnson I think—”

She cocked the gun.

Right. One shade coming right up.

I plunged my magic into the unseen corpse and pulled Johnson’s shade free again. He emerged looking exactly the same as the moment he’d died, right down to the bit of tomato soup in his beard.

As soon as the shade appeared, the woman’s rage refocused on her deceased husband. The bullet she fired passed through the shade with no effect, but that didn’t diminish her fury. She fired off two more shots and I crept to the edge of my circle, trying not to attract attention as I dialed the police.

I seriously needed to start screening my clients better.

• • •

“Alex, tell me you didn’t sleep here last night?”

I jerked upright at the question and my chair rolled away from my desk. The coins I’d been analyzing before I’d nodded off scattered; several rolling over the side of the desk to fall with loud plinks onto the floor. I frowned at the sound and blinked bleary eyes as I tried to focus on the speaker.

Rianna, my once-lost-now-found best friend and business partner, stood in the doorway of my office, her arms crossed over her chest as her green gaze swept over first me and then the mess that comprised my desk. At her side, the barghest who acted as her constant shadow huffed through his large jowls and shook his shaggy head.

“Morning,” I said around a yawn. My neck and back ached—no doubt from sleeping in a chair—and I stretched, trying to work out the kinks. “What time is it?”

“A little after eight. You have a . . .” She pointed to her temple and I placed a hand to the side of my face.

One of the coins clung to my skin. I peeled it off, feeling the slightest tingle of a spell in the metal. Great, one magic coin in the whole lot and I’d slept on it. Of course, maybe it would do me some good. The spell felt like a fortune charm and goodness knew I could use a little luck.

A glance over my desk turned up a blank form. I taped the coin in the provided box and jotted down my initial analysis. I’d do a more in-depth check on the spell later.

After setting down my pen, I looked up to discover Rianna still standing in my doorway, her expression somewhere between concern and disapproval.

“What? I had a lot to do.” I waved a hand to the mess of coins and forms. She cocked one dark eyebrow, clearly unconvinced. With a sigh, I slipped out of my chair and focused on gathering the escaped coins. Even through the solid wood of the desk, I could feel the weight of her stare.

“Oh, yes,” she said, drawing out the words for emphasis. “That looks like an important case. One so pressing, it warranted working through the night.”

I didn’t answer. Rianna and I both had our private investigator licenses, and as grave witches, our specialty was finding answers for our clients by questioning the dead. Analyzing charmed coins didn’t exactly fall within the typical Tongues for the Dead case description, but peering into the land of the dead to raise shades did nasty things to the eyes. So, I’d been searching out cases that wouldn’t make me blind before my thirtieth birthday. It didn’t pay nearly as well as raising shades, but it covered some bills without burning out my vision.

“My last client got arrested before paying for her ritual,” I said, as if recouping the income justified working overtime on a simple spell-identification case we both knew wasn’t pressing.

We also both knew exactly why I hadn’t gone home last night. He had a name.

Falin Andrews.

The Winter Queen’s knight was currently crashing in my one-room loft. Considering we were occasionally lovers, that might have been okay, except that it was the Faerie queen’s royal decree placing him there and saying I suspected her motives was more than an understatement. He suspected them too—which was why he himself had told me never to trust him while he was under her rule. Oh yeah, and he’d told me that while holding me at dagger-point. Just after saying he loved me.