Grave Memory (Alex Craft #3)

by Kalayna Price

Chapter 1

“What do you think?” I asked, as I fumbled for the light switch. An incandescent bulb flickered on, and then continued flickering. I frowned at it, but the late-afternoon sunlight streaming through the grimy picture window prevented the gloom from devouring the room.

Rianna peered through the open doorway but made no effort to enter. Her hand fell to idly scratch behind the ear of the barghest who acted as her ever-present shadow. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”

“The official office for Tongues for the Dead,” I said, waving a hand as if presenting the room.

Rianna had first suggested we open a PI firm that solved cases by questioning the dead when we were still in academy, but by the time I’d finished college, she’d vanished. Three months ago I’d found and liberated her from a power-hungry fae who’d made her a captive changeling of Faerie, and in the wake of recent chaos, we were both healing, adapting, and rebuilding. Which, in my opinion, made now the perfect time to give the dreams of two idealistic schoolgirls a second chance.

Rianna obviously didn’t agree.

“Alex, I think you might need to give your eyes a little more time to recover.”

“This place isn’t that bad,” I said, glancing around the room I envisioned would be a reception lobby—you know, if the firm ever became profitable enough to hire a receptionist. My gaze skidded over walls covered in graffitied runes and minor, mostly dispersed, spells before moving on to take in the balding carpet and the piles of beer cans and cigarettes tossed haphazardly around the otherwise empty room. “It just needs a little TLC.”

Rianna cocked an eyebrow, and the barghest, Desmond, who was in his customary shape of an oversized black dog with red-ringed pupils, huffed, making his jowls billow.

“Okay, so it needs a lot of work, but the rent is affordable”—barely, and only because my landlord waived the rent on my loft as payment for the last big case I’d worked—“and it’s in the Magic Quarter. A definite perk as we offer magical solutions in our investigations.”

“Alex, this is a seedy back alley on the very edge of the Magic Quarter. We’re about as far as we can be from the heart of the Quarter. No upscale restaurants. No spell boutiques. Not even the kitschy stores hawking overpriced, underpowered charms to norms are out this far.” She glanced over her shoulder at the only other door in the admittedly less than ideal alley and lowered her voice. “And I’m pretty sure that unmarked shop is dealing black magic.”

“Gray actually,” I said and her eyes widened. “Hey, it’s not like I went shopping. I just sensed a couple of mild compulsion spells and a lot of weak love charms when I passed by the shop. I think it’s run by a matchmaker.”

“And you were planning to call the OMIH when, exactly?”

The Organization for Magically Inclined Humans was originally formed as an advocate group for witches during the turmoil following the Magical Awakening. A good seventy years later they were still considered the public face of the witch population, but now their mission statement focused on education and promoting the safe and ethical use of magic. That, of course, meant they policed their own.

“Keep your voice down,” I hissed. I had no desire to irritate a neighbor willing to spin gray spells—which were a short step from the really dark, soul damaging stuff. “I contacted the OMIH already. They’re supposed to send an inspector out this week, and once they confirm my report, they’ll alert the Magical Crimes Investigation Bureau.” Which sounded like a lot of tedious bureaucratic red tape. But despite the fact I was an OMIH certified sensitive, citizens couldn’t contact the MCIB directly, so we’d have to wait. The unmarked door on the other side of the alley opened, and I ducked back into the office we were actually supposed to be discussing. “Once we fix this place up, it could be nice. It has the lobby area, a bathroom, and two offices. Exactly what we need,” I said, as if we’d never veered off the subject.

Rianna frowned and curled her fingers in Desmond’s fur. “You can see again, so you don’t need me to substitute anymore, and we both know there isn’t enough business to justify the overhead of an office. Especially when you were doing fine running things through phone and e-mail.”

Well, not always fine. At times I’d barely scraped by, which only highlighted her point. But I had other reasons I wanted to open an office.

When I first emancipated Rianna, she’d been reluctant to spend time in the mortal realm. But when I’d lost my sight several weeks ago after a showdown with a witch who thought the world would be better if all the planes of existence touched—yeah, no, bad idea—Rianna had stepped up and covered my cases. At first she’d left Faerie for only a couple of hours on the days rituals were scheduled. But recently she’d been spending almost all day, every day in Nekros, and while her visits hadn’t completely erased the wraithlike appearance she’d had as Coleman’s soul-chained captive, she now had color in her cheeks and the bruiselike circles no longer ringed her eyes. The mortal realm agreed with her. I didn’t want her to disappear into Faerie again.

Besides, my ability to raise the dead was wyrd magic, and if I didn’t use it, it used me. Over the last few weeks I’d had to perform a couple of off-the-books rituals, holding the shades just long enough to relieve the magical pressure on my shields. But even those limited rituals had come at a higher cost than before. If I returned to raising shades several times a week I’d be permanently blind before I hit thirty. Tongues for the Dead needed a new business model.

“I was actually thinking about expanding the firm’s services. Take on some cases with billable hours not restricted to rituals and talking to shades. Cases that utilize more…traditional forms of investigation.”

“Traditional investigation?” She cocked her head to the side. “Like what? Surveillance? Tailing spouses suspected of cheating? Maybe a stakeout?” I didn’t miss the sarcasm in her tone. Rianna and I were all but night blind, to say nothing of my degrading vision. Then there was the fact that as a changeling, Rianna couldn’t be in the mortal realm during sunset or sunrise without deadly consequences.

“More like locating missing persons or artifacts, tracing the origins of spells or charms. Hell, we could even do background checks if someone would pay us. Between you graduating at the top of your class in spellcasting and me being one of the top five sensitives in the city, we have skills to offer besides grave magic.” I didn’t mention that she’d had a couple hundred extra years’ practice while in Faerie or that I had the whole planeweaving thing going on. Neither facts were something either of us wanted on a résumé. I turned back to the room, which she still hadn’t entered, and waved a hand to encompass the space. “Ignore the mess and imagine what this place could look like. For instance, take that picture window. Once it’s cleaned up, we can have ‘Alex Craft and Rianna McBride: Tongues for the Dead Investigations’ stenciled on it.”

Rianna glanced at the window, which was coated in a decade’s worth of dust, but the faintest hint of a smile appeared at the edge of her mouth. “You’d put my name on it too?”

“How could I not? You were the one who looked up from a mystery novel during your final year at academy and suggested the name.”

The smile grew a little brighter. “I’d forgotten about that. It was so long ago.” She finally stepped inside, Desmond at her heels. “Show me around?”

That task didn’t take long. The doors to the two offices were on opposite sides of the room, and neither office was large—or in better shape than the front room—but each had enough space for a desk, some filing cabinets, and a couple of chairs, which would be enough for meeting with clients. There was also a small closet and a bathroom against the very far wall, but neither of us was brave enough to see what condition it might be in, at least, not yet.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” she said as she surveyed the lobby.

“Then you’re in?”

“Of course I am.” The words were flat, void of any excitement.

I turned and studied her face. It was blank, unexpressive, and totally not the response I anticipated. “This isn’t that faerie master crap again, is it?”

Sadly, it was a legitimate question. When I’d destroyed her former master, Faerie had passed all of his holdings on to me. That included an enormous castle straight out of a fairy tale and his prize changeling, Rianna. I had no interest in owning my childhood friend, but she was a changeling, bound to Faerie and its magic. If I renounced her, some other fae could take her. So I accepted the claim, and as far as Faerie was concerned, she was my property, obliged to my will.

But I considered it political bullshit, and she knew it.

“Rianna, you’re free to do whatever you want, including telling me you’ve outgrown your interest in being a private investigator.”

“Al, don’t think that. It’s nothing like that.” She wove her fingers into Desmond’s fur again, and he leaned against her leg, offering his support. “It’s…I…” She shook her head. “Sometimes I forget that only a few years passed for you while I spent hundreds under Coleman’s control. The freedom to want things for myself, to reach for my own dreams—it’s something I nearly forgot. Having options is a little overwhelming.” She looked around the room, her gaze slow and assessing. A smile crept across her face as she peeked into one of the offices again. Then she turned toward me. “Yes, I want this. I want to be Rianna McBride, PI for Tongues for the Dead. Let’s do it, boss.”

“Partner,” I corrected.

“Partner.” The word was a whisper, but her smile spread, making her green eyes sparkle.

“It’s official, then.” I glanced around the room, imagining what it could be. It was going to take a lot of work.

“I guess we should start with paint,” Rianna said, following my gaze. “And something for the carpet?”