For psychic mediums Quinn McConnell and Hunter Janz, dead folks pay the bills… barely. To make it into the financial comfort zone, they need an edge over their competition, and, as far as Quinn is concerned, some resolution to the sexual tension and unrequited love wreaking havoc with his psychic reception. Salvation comes in the form of dapper Dustin DeWind, a zombie who can obviously see and converse with the departed. In return for Quinn’s and Hunter’s help in finding the man who made him, he promises to steer them toward the elusive spirits that are their stock in trade. But once they forge an uneasy alliance, it almost seems Dustin is also nudging them toward each other….
DESPERATION overrode the zombie’s anxiety as he knocked on the door of the basement flat. He wouldn’t have been doing this if he’d felt he had any other options. The man who lived here could probably incinerate him with a look.
Strains of music came from within—Bonnie Tyler’s burnt-marshmallow voice singing about a total eclipse of the heart. How appropriate. Too appropriate. The zombie’s eyes stung, but he didn’t have to worry about crying in front of strangers. He couldn’t shed tears. So he pinched away that clotted burn and knocked again.
This apartment didn’t look in the least bit suited to the man who allegedly lived here. The building, although well maintained, was old, and it stood in a shabby, older part of the city often plagued by gang-related crime.
The door swung open, and the zombie took a faltering step backward. There stood a tall, broad-shouldered fellow with a stunningly rugged face. An old Harley T-shirt stretched across his chest. The outline of a nipple ring showed through the threadbare fabric.
Yes, he was the one. The zombie knew immediately, because the man was legendary—at least in certain circles.
“Please let me talk to you,” the zombie said hurriedly, before the door was slammed in his face. “I have nowhere else to turn. My name is—”
“I know who you are. Word travels.” The man’s deep voice was both coarse and soft, like sand-scoured velvet. He eyed his visitor from head to foot. “You look like shit. But I suppose being dead will do that to a person.”
Embarrassment drizzled through the zombie. This man certainly didn’t look like shit. Although he wasn’t young, he wasn’t old, either. And he was gorgeously built, the picture of masculine vigor.
Quite the unlikely savior, but a savior nonetheless.
In the background, another song began: Ray LaMontagne’s “Crazy Dreamers.”
Is that what I am?
The zombie launched a final entreaty, subdued but ardent. “Please help me. You’re my only hope. I realize you’re a member of the Phratry and I’m a pariah in their eyes, and you shouldn’t have anything to do with me—”
“Bullshit. The Phratry can’t dictate how I live. I see who I want to see.” Sighing, the man leaned one shoulder against the doorframe and shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. He studied the zombie through narrowed eyes. More than a single, simple color seemed to glimmer between their lids. “Okay, listen. I can tell you in general terms what you need to do. Beyond that, you have to help yourself.” He stood up. “Come on in.”
The zombie, awash with relief and gratitude, stepped through the doorway. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Just don’t try chomping on me. You will regret it.”
“I don’t eat people whose help I need,” the zombie said, trying to match the man’s surprisingly wry humor. He paused and faced his host. “How can I possibly repay you?”
One side of the man’s mouth curved into a sympathetic smile. “You can’t. I have everything I need.”
A male voice called out, “Is somebody here?” It came from a hallway that extended back beyond the living-dining area.
“And there my everything is,” the tall man said, his smile warming further. He turned in the direction of the voice. “Yeah, private consultation. Just stay back there, okay? This is kind of an unusual situation.”
A pause preceded the mumbled reply. “So what else is new?”
“Your partner doesn’t have to hide on my account,” the zombie said.
The master of the house smirked as he steered the zombie toward a large pecan dining table. “No offense, my friend, but you just might find him too succulent to resist.”
THE modest, three-bedroom ranch was empty of furnishings but full of fear. I swallowed waves of it as I shuffled behind Detective Ransen from the small entryway into the living room. Ransen moved to the right and stood beside the picture window as a flurry of curled, leathery leaves clattered against the glass. He knew the drill: Leave the psychics alone to do their thing; don’t speak unless spoken to.
I spoke to him. “It’s a woman who’s missing. Correct?”
I felt Hunter’s hand flatten absently against my back. We were business partners, not the other kind, so the contact was brief. His shoulder brushed mine as he stepped past me, and I caught a pleasantly diverting whiff of his bath soap.
Once upon a time, for a brief, blissful while, we had been more intimate partners. It was shortly after we’d met almost three years ago at my cousin Lyla’s wedding and discovered we had the same gift. I thought Hunter was killer-hot the minute I laid eyes on him, and he must’ve thought I was better than average. Because the very next week, in the front seat of that gleaming 1972 Buick Riviera he’d inherited from his father, a sudden grab and awkward, off-center kiss had led to the most fevered, exciting blow-jobbery I’d ever engaged in—both as a giver and a receiver.
Considering how much I liked Hunter Janz, even at that early stage, and we’d just decided to pair up and take our show on the road, so to speak, I started having visions of another kind—that I finally had a chance of finding a true partner, in every sense of the word.
“I didn’t know you were gay,” I’d said afterward, relishing the cleanly chiseled intensity of Hunter’s features in the moonlight. “You stood up for Lyla’s wedding with her best friend.”
“I got the impression the two of you were dating.”
“We are,” he’d answered, his gaze moving over my face with as much trepidation as appreciation.
Two words like sledgehammer strikes. I doubt Hunter had seen my sweet dream crumbling beneath them. “Oh,” I’d said, hardly the model of eloquence. Well, that’s the end of that, I’d thought. Back to the prowl.
“I’m not actually gay,” Hunter had informed me. “I’m just… strongly drawn to certain men sometimes. You know.”
Yeah, I knew. Hunter was one of those people who believed an occasional instance of same-sex attraction did not a homosexual make, which might very well have been true. I didn’t know; I’d never gone more ways than one. As if to verify his claim, Hunter had kept a buffer zone between us ever since his one glorious moment of weakness. Our professional involvement had henceforth been strenuously… professional. And even more so after Hunter and Emily became engaged four months later.
It shouldn’t have been a problem for me. I’d had plenty of come-and-go sex. But it was a problem, and one I didn’t care to acknowledge. I didn’t want to admit being infatuated with Hunter any more than he wanted to admit being not-quite-heterosexual.
In spite of it all, we’d managed to settle into a quirky camaraderie. We complemented each other.
Now, as my professional partner passed me, I reflexively glanced at him. Hunter’s face was drawn, his mouth set. The gathered skin of his forehead had put a crimp in his straight, dark brows.
His expression pulled me back to the present. The house’s atmosphere again closed in. Hunter obviously felt the residue too, that sickening metamorphosis of curiosity into anxiety into terror. It was what, on a certain fateful evening, Rita Finnegan had felt.
I knew why she was missing. We both knew.
Ransen had given us a minimum of information about the twelve-week-old case. He preferred to do things that way and so, for that matter, did we. Preconceived notions could easily skew our perceptions. We were only told this was a missing-person investigation, and we’d be going to the house from which the missing person had disappeared.
“She was alone at the time,” Hunter said, “but she didn’t live alone.”
Ransen verified this with another curt “Correct.”
“Husband. She had a husband.”
“Where was he?” I asked.
Ransen was in the process of carefully unwrapping two sticks of chewing gum. “Work. Second shift.” He stuck the gum in his mouth and the wrappers in his coat pocket.
I took a deep breath and let my gaze wander over the powder-blue carpeting. It bore no telltale blots of discoloration, no faded areas.
Suddenly, a sharp pain webbed across the left side of my skull. I swayed a little and squeezed my eyes shut. Just as I opened them again, Hunter gasped, then grunted. Under different circumstances, the sounds would’ve been damned provocative.
“Jesus,” he grated as he curled a hand over the back of his head.
I turned to Ransen, who leaned against the window frame. He lifted his small notebook and poised his pen above the clean top page.
“Somebody was with her,” I said. “And she knew him.”
“One him or more hims?” Ransen asked laconically.
“Not sure yet. But there was a blow to the head. That’s how she was overcome. Initially.” Rita was a petite young woman. I felt her youth and slightness in my own bones. It wouldn’t have taken much to put her down.
After a quick hitch of the eyebrows, Ransen began writing. His jaw worked the wad of gum.
Hunter was looking toward the hallway that ran off to our left between living room and kitchen. “He dragged her by the hair. That way.”
Ransen scowled. “Based on the photo we got from the family, her hair don’t look long enough.”
“How old is the photo?” Hunter’s expression hadn’t changed much since he’d walked in the door.
I ambled up to him. The hallway drew me, as well.
“He dragged her by the hair,” Hunter repeated. “You might want to check the age of that picture.”
The two of us headed down the hallway without speaking. We always tried not to influence each other’s impressions. That roiling stew of pain and confusion and nerve-pinching fright had begun to make me feel ill. My thigh caught for a moment in the drape of Hunter’s all-weather coat, and I murmured an apology.
“’S all right,” Hunter murmured back, and laid a hand, this time, on my left shoulder blade.
I always registered his touches. Couldn’t seem to help it, even though they hadn’t meant anything since That Euphoric Night.
We stopped simultaneously in front of the bathroom at the end of the hall and stared at the floor near the threshold.
Hunter’s respiration picked up speed, his breath rasping in and out of his nose.
“She was lying here for a while,” I said, aware of Ransen behind us. “He’d knocked her into a daze in the living room, but this is where she began to come around again.”
It would’ve been a blessing to Rita if she’d been fully unconscious. All my insides, from navel to pubic bone, seemed to clench. I felt external pressure, internal pressure. The stew bubbled more fiercely. Rita’s desperation and then anger—no, rage—became an ingredient… but only for a moment. Like a cheesecloth bag full of pungent herbs, it fell into the mix, swirled around, and was fished out.
Yanked out, rather. By a hard slap. My cheek stung. I felt the stifling press of something covering my mouth. Words rang in my head. “Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”
“He or they raped her here, on the floor,” Hunter said. Lines scored his face.
God, I felt like shit, but I was probably faring better than my partner. That was how it went for us at crime scenes. I absorbed most of the physical sensations. Hunter took the majority of the psycho-emotional hits, although today each of us was getting a dose of both. The internal stuff was usually worse because it stuck longer. Sensory discomfort melted away once a psychic medium left the location that generated his discomfort. But victims’ emotions were a lot more tenacious.
I heard Ransen’s pen scratching against paper as I stepped into the bathroom. I felt the tense, controlled vibrations of Hunter’s distress. They bounced off the knots inside me like sonic pulses.
I ached all over, but we hadn’t yet reached the end of it. Hunter sank to his knees in front of the bathtub and rested his forearms on the edge.
“He put her here.”
I nodded as I stood over Hunter and stared at the clean beige porcelain. “She was woozy, hurting.”
After a moment, Hunter ran a hand over the tub’s inner wall. “Resigned to it.” He turned his head to look up at me. “Quinn?”
The gentle prompt was hardly in keeping with what was going on inside me. “Not completely resigned,” I whispered. “Not at first.”
A searing pocket of pain sank into my throat. A thump of heavy weight seemed to cave in my breastbone. Rita’s bursts of rage became weaker until they lost all galvanizing potency. Finally, a crushing tightness throttled my neck. I had difficulty catching my breath.
Getting any closer to that bathtub was out of the question.
Now she’s resigned to it. How can she be anything but?
“At least she got angry,” Hunter said, maybe to alleviate that sense of helplessness and defeat I’d also picked up on. “At least she fought. On and off, anyway.”
“Yes,” I said. “On and off. Until she gave up.”
Hunter stood, rubbed his forehead, pulled his fingers over his eyes.
“You okay?” I asked.
He nodded, although I could tell he wasn’t okay. This one would be hard for him to slough off.
We slumped out of the bathroom and stood with Ransen in the hallway. Immediately I felt somewhat better.
Hunter sighed. He put on his mask of impassivity, the one that wouldn’t allow his torment to show. “I don’t believe she’s alive. I felt her drifting away.”
Morosely, I agreed.
Our conclusion had honed Ransen’s attention. “You think she was killed here, in the house.”
“Yes,” I said.
“By what means?”
“I’m not sure.” Trying to conjure the sensations I’d felt, I idly touched my neck, my chest. “I get the impression her assailant started out doing one thing then reconsidered and ended up doing other things. Almost haphazardly.” Closing my eyes, I trained my mind on the perpetrator. “He hadn’t done anything like this before. I think… I think he was maybe going to cut her throat, but something made him chuck that idea. Could be he didn’t have the right instrument, only had a pocketknife or something. Or he didn’t want to make a mess.” I opened my eyes to look at Ransen. “I think he strangled her. But there was something else he did before that.” I flattened a hand across my sternum, remembering that unexpected slam, the abrupt heaviness and shocking loss of air.
Intently, Hunter watched me. It was distracting. He was distracting.
Then I saw what had happened in the bathtub—part of it, anyway—and saw it through Rita’s eyes. Or maybe through Hunter’s, because he might’ve seen it first. I glimpsed the wild look on the killer’s face, glimpsed a tight, white-knuckled fist. But the image was little more than a smear on my mental canvas. I couldn’t make out the man’s features with any clarity.
“His mind was spinning,” Hunter said. “The guy was scared and flustered because he didn’t know how to deal with the consequences of his actions. He was pretty crazed by that point.”
“Yeah, that seems to be the case.” I stood up from the wall. I hadn’t realized I’d been leaning against it. “He punched her.” I indicated an area about three inches below the dish of my throat. “Not because he figured he’d kill her that way, but more because he wanted to—”
“Make her go away,” Hunter said. “That’s how he thought of it. He wanted to make Rita and the whole incident just vanish so he could get on with his life. But he knew that wasn’t going to happen, and it maddened him.” Hunter gave me a wondering look, what I thought of as his epiphany look. “What he did… it was like an exasperated guy punching a wall.”
“That’s it exactly.”
Ransen scratched at one winged, gray eyebrow. “Okay. So Ms. Finnegan didn’t walk out of here willingly and wasn’t kidnapped. You both think she was first attacked in the living room, then dragged down the hallway and raped. Afterwards, the assailant dumped her in the bathtub and murdered her there. Which means she was hauled out of here dead.”
“Or nearly so,” Hunter said.
Ransen’s gaze slid my way. “But you, Mr. McConnell, are not sure how she was killed. You think the assailant putzed around, trying out different methods—”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘putzing around’.” I leaned against the wall again and crossed my arms over my chest.
Hunter gave me a wan half-smile. We hadn’t worked on that many criminal cases—went on ghost hunts and did private readings, for the most part—so we still had trouble accommodating the jadedness of some law enforcement officials. Hunter, especially, was anything but jaded. In spite of his self-containment, he was the most sensitive of sensitives. People remained people to him, whether they were alive or dead, victims of their own foolishness or victims of felonious behavior.
“Sorry,” Ransen said. It was only the slightest nod to propriety. “Let me put it this way. You think there was some attempt at stabbing or slashing, but it was abandoned.”
“And then the guy whaled on her.”
“I didn’t say he whaled on her. I think he impulsively delivered a single, forceful blow. That’s after he probably struck her in the face at least once during the rape.”
Ransen nodded. “And then he strangled her.”
“I believe so, yes.”
“With his bare hands?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “That’s kind of my impression, though.”
“He didn’t come prepared,” Hunter added.
Ransen scribbled more notes. I took the opportunity to study my partner. The stress had left his face, but that only meant it had sunk deeper. He’d be wandering around for the next few days with a troubled soul. His eyes were beautiful at that moment, in spite of being framed by a fine netting of creases—sad yet lustrous, the blue so dark it was almost navy.
After puffing out a big sigh, Ransen sidled past us and went into the bathroom. There wasn’t anything to see.
“Who reported her missing?” I asked. “And when?”
“That’s the pisser,” Ransen said, his voice echoing from the tub enclosure. He turned, strolled out, and stood facing us. “Her husband didn’t contact the department until around noon the following day. He said Rita often hung out with friends or relatives when he was at work, so he didn’t make anything of it when he got home and found her gone. It wasn’t until he saw her purse in the coat closet that he figured something wasn’t right.”
“Didn’t he wonder why her car was here and she wasn’t?” Hunter asked.
“Her car wasn’t here,” Ransen said. “It’s gone too.”
I could infer the rest. The cops didn’t exactly jump right on a missing-person report unless a kid was involved. Before they’d tackled the case in earnest, all kinds of evidence could’ve been destroyed or disposed of, including a car. And a body.
“Did the husband notice any sign of forced entry or a struggle? Any blood?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say more,” Ransen told us. He closed his notebook and slipped it back into his pocket. “Do you get any sense of the person responsible for this? What he looks like, where he lives, what connection he had to Rita? Or where he might’ve taken her?”
“All I got,” I said, “was what he put her through. It’s hard to see past that.”
“What about motive?”
“Nothing definite. And I hate speculating.”
Hunter looked thoughtful, but he offered no opinion.
We all walked back to the front door. Hunter stood with his hands in his coat pockets, his tired eyes trained on some point in the middle distance. I felt him trying to discern details about the attacker.
“Do you have anything more to add, Mr. Janz?” Ransen asked him.
Distractedly, Hunter shook his head. “I feel the way Quinn does. The victim’s reactions are pretty consuming.” Finally, he met the detective’s inquisitive, pouchy-eyed gaze. “On top of that, the house doesn’t look the way it did at the time. Hell, it’s been stripped bare and scrubbed clean.”
“There aren’t any trigger objects,” I explained.
“I realize that,” Ransen said. “The husband put the place up for sale because he couldn’t handle the bills on his income alone.”
“What’s his first name?” I massaged my forehead, trying to obliterate the last vestiges of dull pain.
It didn’t strike the right chord, but that didn’t necessarily mean the husband was innocent. “Can we get in the garage?”
Faintly, Ransen blushed. “No. Sorry. I, uh, didn’t think to bring that key along.”
Hunter glanced at me. “Maybe Quinn and I should come back by ourselves. Just to walk the property, feel the house doors and garage doors, sit on the stoop, walk the alley.”
“That might work,” I said. “We need to sort of cleanse our mental palates of Rita’s influence before we focus on her attacker.”
“Well, stop by anytime, then.” Ransen buttoned up his coat, which was a less tailored, less flattering, big man’s version of Hunter’s. “If you need to get inside again, let me know.”
At that instant, I had a strong, disconcerting sense of somebody’s attention zeroed in on the house. Or rather, on Hunter and me. But it wasn’t Ransen’s attention and it wasn’t Rita’s. The source was outside, and keenly interested in what we were doing.
I swung open the door without a word and stepped onto the stoop. A black BMW pulled away from the curb across the street. The car was distinctly out of place in this modest working-class neighborhood.
“You felt it too, didn’t you?” Hunter said at my back, his breath briefly warming the autumn chill that skated past my ears.
“Yeah.” I stared down the street.
“What? What did you see?” Ransen said in a rush. I heard the door close and lock behind him.
Leaves cartwheeled across the small, withered lawn. The For Sale sign rocked forlornly in the wind.
“I don’t know.”
How strange. I had the impression that whoever was in that vehicle had nothing to do with the tragic fate of Rita Finnegan.
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