Letters of Smoke
The walls were red with blood. It was all she tasted when she swallowed, all she saw when she forced her eyelids open. The heavy, metallic scent of blood overpowered everything else in the room.
Riona's world was comprised of blood and pain.
Footsteps echoed like gunshots on the parquet floor. Riona tensed. Footsteps meant more pain, more blood. A whimper fell from chapped, blood-caked lips. Pathetic. She was pathetic. It had only taken five hours with a madman to reduce a nine year veteran of the CMPD to a whimpering, wounded animal.
"Detective O'Dell," a nasal, masculine voice sing-songed. The footsteps grew closer. "I have a surprise for you."
Edwin Galicia, dark eyes glinting with malicious humor, stalked into the living room of his former home. There was a hunting knife, blade stained with her blood, in his right hand. His left arm was wrapped around the neck of a tall, fit man with fair hair and pale, sightless eyes.
Her heart leapt to her throat. Her stomach twisted; the air in her lungs froze. Of course. Of course he'd get tired of playing with her and move on to the hostage.
"Thought this was between you and me, Eddie."
"You know how to end this, Detective."
She did. Her department issued Sig was within reach. She could grab it and put a bullet smack in the middle of Galicia's forehead. Of course, moving the gun would set off a trap that would drive two barbed, needle-sharp iron spikes right onto her abdomen.
Suicide-by-cop had always been Galicia's ultimate goal. Taking the cop with him was just a neat, little bonus.
"I heard that losing one of your senses enhances all the others. Think that means he'll squeal sooner?" Galicia squeezed the hostage's neck. "Think the little psychic will know what I'm going to do before I do it?"
"He talks to dead people, moron. He's not precognitive."
"Hey!" Galicia's smirk slipped. "Just for that, I think we'll skip the warm up and move right on to the real fun."
Riona exhaled and ignored the sharp pang of pain in her chest. Broken ribs were always a bitch. She extended her arm. Her fingers brushed the grip of her gun. She mentally calculated distance and trajectory, tried not to think about the pain. 'Here we go.'
Riona O'Dell jerked upright. The echoes of her screams hung in the air. She pressed icy, shaky fingers against her abdomen. Through the thin t-shirt she could feel the raised, puckered scar tissue. Sweat dripped off the end of her nose and splashed onto her shirt. Just a dream.
She drew her knees to her chest. Her heart was thundering. Tears stung her eyes. She wanted to lick her lips, but her mouth had gone dry.
Shadows danced across her bedroom walls. The view of the Charlotte skyline was worth the extra sixty bucks a month, but sometimes those lights and her imagination worked against her. "Get it together, chickadee," she murmured.
Riona let the sounds of cars and sirens and downtown Charlotte seep into her consciousness. She wasn't in an old mansion on the outskirts of the city. She was safe in her bed. She wasn't strapped to a Chippendale table. She was home. She was safe and sound.
Well, at least she was safe.
The sound of an old-school telephone jangle sent her leaping off the bed. She stared at her vibrating cell phone as if it was a coiled-up rattler. The phone rang again. She snatched it up and slid her finger across the bottom of the screen.
"Grandmama Cat, it's three o'clock in the morning."
"It's my hearing that's going, honey, not my eyesight." Traces of Ireland lingered in Catriona O'Dell's voice. "Besides, it's not as if you were sleeping."
"I could have been."
"But you weren't," Grandmama Cat said, proving that she had contributed to the stubbornness that flowed in Riona's blood.
Riona heard the clank of the kettle being set on a stove burner. The craving for a cup of her grandmother's chamomile-and-lavender tea hit her like a punch to the gut. She turned on every light in the apartment as she made her way to the kitchen. Shadows and nightmares were no match for fluorescent bulbs.
"I'm fine, Grandmama," Riona insisted as she filled and then switched on the electric kettle.
"That's not the way I hear it." The sharp whistle of a ready kettle cut through the connection. "You were hollering so loud it woke that nice man across the hall."
Riona scowled at the empty kitchen. Her mother had named her eldest daughter Catriona, an O'Dell family name, in hopes that Riona would also possess her grandmother's special skills. Unfortunately, the only special genes Riona inherited were the ones that prompted her to join the police academy two days after her Clemson graduation.
"Tell Grandpapa Sean that I don't care for snitches."
"He's worried about you, honey."
"He's an old fusspot with nothing better to do but spend the afterlife tattling on me." Riona grabbed a coffee mug from the dish drainer and set it beside the stove. She fished one of her grandmother's homemade tea bags out of the jar on the counter.
"Catriona Presley O'Dell!"
"Snitches get the sage."
"Ungrateful child. I don't know what's happened to you."
"Grandmama," Riona sighed, pouring hot water over the tea bag. Guilt nipped at her. "I'm sorry. You're right, it isn't a good night. Tell Grandpapa I'm sorry, too."
She carried her tea to the living room and sank into the cushions of the square-legged, eggplant-colored sofa. They discussed her younger sister Sadie's upcoming wedding and her baby sister Annie's pregnancy until the sun competed with the artificial light. Sadie's wedding, due in part to their mother's influence, was all set to be the event of the season in their hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Annie's baby girl, due between Sadie's wedding and Thanksgiving, was already the apple of her Grandpa Colin's eye. Riona was Sadie's maid of honor, but fortunately Annie had hit up their brother Brendan and his wife Lizzy for godparent duty.
The telltale thump of a newspaper hitting her front door roused her from a floral arrangement-induced daze. "I liked the picture of the bouquet with the dahlias, but I'll feel Sadie out about the orchids," she promised, padding to the front door to retrieve her daily edition of the Charlotte Observer. "Try and get some rest now, Grandmama."
"I will, honey. You be nice to Nate. Don't take your rough night out on that sweet man."
Riona hung up without responding. It was insulting, really. She never took her moods out on Nate. At least not intentionally. She downed three mugs of coffee while she read the newspaper from front to back. It was a habit she'd picked up during a public policy class in college. Staying up on current events had come in handy when she was a cop. Ever since she'd started NC Investigations and Cleansings with Nathaniel Guterman, she spent more time with the real estate section and less time with the local news.
Current events weren't much use for someone who dealt with the specters of the past.
Paper folded up in the recycling bin, Riona poured the rest of the coffee from the pot in a purple-and-orange travel mug. They were starting a new investigation, so her day would likely be spent in the library, the Mecklenburg Historical Association, or the CMPD archives. Really good investigations meant she'd have the chance to visit all three.
She dressed for the warm early September weather in jeans and a sleeveless button-front blue blouse. There was a black cardigan folded in her messenger bag in case hot-blooded Rita Collier at the MHA had her hand on the thermostat. She pulled her shoulder-length walnut brown hair into a low ponytail before slipping on socks and blue sneakers.
Her apartment came with a one-car garage bay. The day after she'd turned in her badge, she'd traded her car for a seven-speed commuter bicycle in orange and purple. Groceries were carried in the saddle-style basket on the rear of the bike. The hard, locked handlebar case was the perfect place to store her gun.
Riona took the long way from her apartment to Nate's 1930s Dilworth estate. His ancestral home doubled as their office. The fresh morning air and the familiar buzz of the city helped clear her mind. The chocolate hazelnut tart she'd wolfed down in the parking lot of her favorite bakery hadn't hurt, either.
She parked her bike in the garage bay Nate had cleaned out for her and slipped through the side gate to the spacious, perfectly manicured back yard. Her morning habit was to binge on caffeine and read the newspaper. Nate's was to listen to the morning news while sitting by the pool.
Tiger, Nate's German Shepherd, left his master's side to greet her at the gate. She kept a package of homemade treats in a pocket of her bag just for the well-trained dog. They were healthier than the high-priced, brand-name crap Nate insisted on feeding the poor thing. Tiger gleefully munched a treat while she made her way to the wrought iron table set up by the pool.
"Good morning, Nate."
Nate turned away from his laptop to face her. He sniffed once, frowned. "You had another nightmare last night."
The smile slid off Riona's face. She dropped a white paper bag on the table beside Nate's right hand and flung herself in the chair next to him. Her lips twisted in a scowl. "Did Grandpapa come squealing to you, too?"
"I have not seen your grandfather since last week." Nate dipped a long-fingered hand into the bag and extracted a warm, fragrant raspberry croissant. "You're twenty minutes late, which means you needed the extra time to center yourself. Which means you rode past Sweet Lorraine's. You can't resist a chocolate tart, so you stopped. You know my weakness for their croissants, so you picked one up for me. You're not the only one who can follow clues, Detective."
"A delicious, hand-delivered breakfast automatically means that I had a nightmare."
"I think I liked it better when I believed Grandpapa Sean had told you."
Nate wiped crumbs of croissant off his fingers with a paper napkin. He reached out to pat her hand; his aim was off by a few inches. Despite her irritation, she slid her fingers under his. Pale green, sightless eyes stared at a point slightly over her left shoulder.
"There's no shame in having nightmares, Riona. Considering what you went through, I think it would be abnormal if you did not have nightmares."
She took a long sip of cooling coffee to clear the lump in her throat. For months, she and Nate had honored their silent agreement to not discuss the tragic event that had drawn them closer. She'd always assumed that he would be the first to break, but there was something inside her cracking.
There was a long pause. An apology, something to call back her question, hovered on the tip of her tongue. Nate answered before she could speak.
The brusqueness of his response made it clear he wasn't open to a follow-up question. Riona nodded. She could respect his need for privacy. She had her share of secrets.
"Are you walking the house this morning?" she asked.
"Tonight. Allen has a class this morning. Since he's actually attending his classes this semester, I do not want to give him any excuse to skip."
Allen Harris was Nate's twenty-one-year-old distant cousin and personal assistant. After years of pressure from Nate, his only living relative, Allen had started attending UNC Charlotte to finish his business degree. Allen lived with Nate for most of the week, but spent several nights with his girlfriend Erica.
"I can do the assist."
"What about your research?"
"The house is from the '60s. I don't foresee having to spend much time in the archives unless there's something wrong with the property. This should be an easy one."
"That is the same thing I said about the Mercer house."
Riona shuddered. They'd both been fooled by the cheery white picket fence and well-maintained early twentieth-century house. There had been so many spirits in the house, so much malevolence, that Nate had called her grandmother in for assistance. Riona had filled an entire spiral notebook with information on deaths, violent acts, and tragedies.
"Point." She leaned her chair back and propped her feet on the edge of the table. "Besides, I want to get another read on the realtor. We've never dealt with her agency before, and she didn't seem happy that the prospective buyers hired us."
The Home Purchase Full Disclosure Act, better known as the Amityville Act, required home sellers to disclose to prospective buyers any known paranormal activity. It also allowed home buyers the opportunity to investigate a house by having a medium or ghost hunting group go through the house. Ghost hunting teams gathered evidence of activity to provide to owners but often didn't research the house's history or offer any other forms of proof.
NC Investigations and Cleansings utilized their individual talents. Nate, a card-carrying psychic medium, conversed with any spirits in a home. Riona hunted through the house's history to see if there was any truth to the ghosts' claims. Spirits often lied about their true reasons for hanging about that they couldn't be evicted. A time or two, Riona's investigative work had led to the closing of a cold case.
Riona played fetch with Tiger while Nate changed clothes. Normally a conservative, classy dresser, Nate's spirit walks often took him into dirty attics, dusty basements, and closets so he opted for jeans and casual shirts on walk days.
She grinned when he emerged from the house in jeans and a Duke Blue Devils polo shirt. "Wish I'd known it was alma mater day. Now I feel out of place."
He frowned at her. "You put the Clemson vest on my dog, didn't you?"
She glanced down at the purple vest on the dog's dark fur. Tiger nudged her knee with his head. She instinctively reached down to rub behind his warm ears. "Maybe. But I grabbed the Duke leash."
"He's going to have an identity crisis."
"He's a dog."
"That doesn't preclude him from having a mental breakdown during game day because he's confused about which team to root for."
"Sure it does." Riona used her set of keys to unlock Nate's luxury SUV. She opened the back hatch so Tiger could hop in and settle on his plaid rug. "A: Duke isn't on Clemson's football schedule this year. B: I don't care about basketball."
"I don't, so I'm not going to care who you teach him to root for during basketball season. And C: He's a dog."
Loaded down with every possible amenity, Nate's car was fun to drive. She and Allen often fought over who got to play chauffer. She kept the radio on the instrumental jazz station Nate liked to listen to when he was prepping for a walk.
The house in Sardis Forest was only half an hour from their office. The lots were heavily wooded. As Nate was known to ramble through backyards, she was grateful the kit in the back was stocked with bug spray.
Nancy Walker, an over-tanned, bottle-blonde on the backside of forty, was waiting for them in the driveway. Riona parked the SUV next to Nancy's shiny red convertible. The realtor's smile was a fake as the boobs threatening to spill over the top of her silk camisole.
"You're lucky the Taylors signed the waiver regarding the dog," she snapped as Riona led Tiger around the car to Nate.
Nate's fingers lingered on Riona's when she handed him the leash. The touch was brief but comforting. "We have worked with the Taylors before, Ms. Walker. They understand Tiger's necessity."
"None of this is a necessity." The thin heels of Nancy's patent leather pumps wobbled with every angry step. Keys jangled as she unlocked the door. "Our usual company has already given the house a clean bill of health."
Behind Nancy's back, Riona poked out her tongue. Most realtors took advantage of a loophole in the Amityville Act. They hired cheap, amateur ghost hunting groups to "investigate" their listings. It gave buyers warm-fuzzies but was essentially worthless. Investigators weren't required to guarantee their work, though Nate and Riona did, and evidence could be faked or suppressed.
"Greg Taylor is highly-sensitive child," Nate said, "the Taylors just want to make sure there is nothing in the house that could disturb him."
"Like your perfume," Riona muttered as she followed Nate into the wide, bright foyer.
Nate tapped her foot with his cane. "Be nice," was his whispered admonishment. It was a phrase Riona often heard from her partner.
Though Nancy initially insisted on staying throughout Nate's walk, he sweet-talked her in to taking an early lunch and returning when Riona called. There was a reason Nate was the one who dealt with clients and realtors. It was the same reason Riona had left her gun locked in Nate's glove box.
She videotaped Nate's walk. Often the tapes were used during their final presentation to the client. Most spirits couldn't resist performing for the camera or responding to Nate's presence. He was unusually silent as they explored the first three rooms of the house. When they reached the living room, a massive room with large windows and a gorgeous view of the woods, he raked a hand through his honey-blond hair.
Riona's eyebrows shot up. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd heard Nate swear. The hair on the back of her neck started to rise.
"Can you smell that?"
"Nope. That gardenia crap Ms. Walker bathes in has completely screwed up my nose. Makes me wish I had a cough drop."
"Someone's tried to do something. There are spirits here, but I can't reach them. They're at the edge of my senses."
Riona adjusted her grip on the recorder. She glanced around the room, but there were no obvious signs of magic. Proper cleansings could only be done by those "fey-touched", as her grandmother called it. That didn't stop every wannabe with access to herbs and crystals from trying a DIY job.
"No. It feels more like a suppression." Nate ventured closer to the windows. He ran a finger along the glass, traced a series of symbols. For a second they glowed a bright yellow. He leaned closer and sniffed the glass. "Definitely a suppression."
"Can you break it?"
"Possibly." He moved away from the window. His square jaw was set in concentration. A furrow appeared between his closed eyes. "It may take some time."
"I've got all the time in the world," Riona said. She paused, tapped her lip. "But the library closes at seven."
He held up a hand to indicate a need for silence. She dropped to a squat and reached for Tiger. The Shepherd padded to her side. His long tongue hung out of his gaping mouth as she ran her fingers along his spine.
Without warning, he sat back on his haunches, threw his head back, and howled. Riona fell backwards into an inelegant sprawl on the hardwood floor. The camera slid from her hands and disappeared underneath a mission-style sofa.
"Okay," Nate said, voice raspy. Both hands were wrapped around the cane so tightly his knuckles were white. "I can sense them. Not too clearly, but they're there."
"That's good, isn't it?"
Nate shook his head. "Ree, one of them is a newbie."