Sam found his partner and roommate sitting in the recliner next to the picture window in the living room. In the morning sun Kiel appeared unusually pale and transparent, making Sam wonder what the problem might be, as if he couldn't already tell. Kiel had that look that often meant something was weighing heavily on his mind.
"Yo. Good morning. How's it hanging?" Not waiting for an answer, Sam followed his nose into the kitchen where a fresh pot of coffee was ready. He poured himself a cup as the man came up behind him.
"You look like shit," Kiel announced heavily.
Sam smiled. "Coming from you, I'll take that as a compliment. I'm not going to even ask if you've arrived at any Sherlockian conclusions, since the expression on your face hasn't changed since yesterday."
Stretching his arms over his head, Kiel slowly let out a sigh. "In all my years in homicide, I can't remember ever facing a case where there weren't any clues. Not a freakin' one! We can't even figure out what the freakin' murder weapon was!" He growled softly and stomped out of the kitchen, leaving Sam to eat his meager breakfast of Pop-Tarts alone, before going back to the bedroom to get dressed.
The conversation slash discussion slash rant continued on their drive over to the station. "I must've gone over the details a hundred times." Slapping the folder in his lap, Kiel finally ceased and sat back to watch the scenery go by. In front of him the police radio chattered almost inaudibly, although their ears would quickly catch their I.D. if it was called.
The sky couldn't have been any grayer or sicklier looking than it was that morning. And on a Monday, no less. Not taking into account the rain that continued to drizzle in one section of the city and pour in another. With their luck, it would be pouring at the station.
He chanced a sideways glance at his partner. As always, the man looked impeccable, pushing Sam's jealousy factor up another notch. "Where'd you get the suit?" he inquired, just to break the monotonous quiet.
"I saw an ad for it at Makes-the-Man."
Sam whistled softly. "So what does a suit like that go for? Five hundred?" He caught Kiel giving him a weary smile.
"You don't wanna know."
"Bet the tie and shirt alone is almost a week's pay."
"If you're trying to take my mind off the case, it's not working."
"Suit yourself," Sam quipped. Throwing a glance back at the other man, he met Kiel's eyes, and waggled his eyebrows. Seconds later they were both laughing at the bad joke. It was enough to break the tension their case had been putting on them, and by the time they arrived at the station, both men were in a better frame of mind to tackle the details afresh.
Twenty-four/seven, three hundred sixty-five, the main police station on Aaron Street looked like New York's Grand Central Station for the dregs of humanity. It didn't matter what time of the day or night, day of the week, or even the month of the year. One could find both blue-collar and white-collar crime being bundled up, cuffed, arraigned, bailed out, or any number of procedures, which caused them to be paraded back and forth from holding cell, to interrogation room, to booking. If it weren't for clocks and calendars no one would be able to tell one minute from the next.
Sam parked his thermos on top of his desk while Kiel tossed the case folder on the desk across from his. Before either had a chance to drop their butts into their chairs, Lieutenant Owen Random signaled for them to join him. Silently they followed the man into their boss' office.
"Did either of you two geniuses come up with any possibilities?" the captain inquired right off the bat. The wrinkled shirt and crooked tied was evidence that the man had been at work a lot longer than they had.
Kiel shook his head by way of an answer.
Sam went a step further to add a despondent, "No."
"I thought not. Which is why I've decided to go a bit off the path and try an unorthodox route." Captain Jordan Redd reached underneath a stack of file folders sitting to one side on his desk, and extracted a bright green one. The fact that it was a colored folder immediately attracted everyone's attention. All cases were handled in the plain manila variety, but only very exclusive ones were given the color option.
Green was the captain's personal choice for outside help. And in many circumstances, for those sources who often worked outside police jurisdiction.
They watched as the man picked up his phone and punched in a number he found inside the folder. "J Laurent, please. Yes, Miss Laurent. My name is Captain Jordan Redd. I'm in charge of homicide here at the Aaron Street Station, yes." His eyes swiveled over to the two detectives watching him from the other side of the room. "Yes, ma'am, it is." He paused again to listen. "Yes, I will. I'm sending over the two detectives assigned to that case. They'll be able to fill you in on the details and take you over to the site for you to examine. Yes. Yes, that's right. All right. Thank you, Miss Laurent. Appreciate any bone you can toss us." He hung up as he muttered a soft expletive under his breath. "Wish I knew how she does that." Glancing back up, he laced his fingers together and placed both hands on top of his desk. "All right. Miss Laurent has agreed to help us. Stark, you and Reese get over to her place and be sure to give her everything she asks for. Take her anyplace she needs to go. Got that?"
Kiel nodded, raising a finger for attention. "Who is this Laurent woman? A profiler? Or what?"
Captain Redd made a face before taking a deep breath. "She's a...it's hard to explain. She calls herself a seer."
"A seer?" Sam snorted. "You mean a psychic?"
"Oh, Geez, Captain. You want us to babysit a psychic? Why not just get out the Ouija board while we're at it?" Kiel propped his feet up on the rim of the trash can beside the captain's desk.
Sam opened his mouth to say more, but the expression on Redd's face stopped him cold.
"Listen, you two. You've had over a week to pop the zit on this case, and you've got nothing to show for it. Personally, I'm just as leery about bringing in this woman, but I'm sitting at a crossroads. I've got the head honchos at central demanding information to feed the public out there. I have five dead bodies down at the morgue, with no clue as to who killed them, or with what. And I have somebody still out there probably getting ready to do in victim number six."
Leaning over his desk toward the men, he dropped his voice slightly. "You men know Captain Lucius over at the Sender Street Station, correct?"
Kiel nodded for the both of them.
"Remember the Milkman Murders?"
This time both men nodded. The Milkman Murders had occurred four years ago. Four women, all housewives, had been found viciously strangled in their kitchens. The victims, as well as the floors, had all been covered in spilt milk. There had been no signs of a break-in. To all intents, it appeared as if the victims had voluntarily opened their doors to the killer. The press had dubbed the maniac the Milkman. With hardly anything to go by, and with nothing to tie the apparently randomly picked victims together, the police had been at a loss as to who was responsible.
"Lucius called this woman in, and she gave them enough information to tag Wrightson as the most likely suspect." Less than a week later, Wrightson had confessed, but by that time plenty of evidence had been confiscated from the man's apartment to tie him to all four crimes. The man had gotten the death penalty.
"How come we've never heard of this Laurent woman before?" Kiel asked.
"She didn't start offering her services until five years ago," Random interjected. Lifting his lanky frame off the filing cabinets, he walked over to the other side of the captain's desk. "She first contacted the commissioner back then. From what I've heard, she told him a few things about his childhood that convinced him she was the real deal."
Redd picked up. "She's been working for us, for the police, ever since then, but very covertly. Very undercover. She doesn't want the press to get wind of her. She prefers her privacy and anonymity. So whatever you two do, make sure it's unobserved. Got me?"
"And you're going to take her word on anything she hands you?" Kiel questioned.
The same half-grin appeared on both the captain's and lieutenant's faces. "Just wait," Random told him. "Give yourselves an hour, and you won't be disbelieving anymore."
Sam blew a raspberry. "I don't believe in mediums or spiritualists. I don't believe in psychics. And I don't believe she's going to convince me otherwise in an hour's time."
Chuckling, Captain Redd leaned back in his chair. "You haven't given me squat in a week's time. One day with this woman isn't going to do more harm than good. Here." Closing the green folder, he tossed it at Kiel. "If she doesn't give you anything viable by tonight, you have my permission to send her on her way. Fair deal?"
The two detectives got to their feet.
"One day?" Sam repeated, just to be sure.
Random nodded. "But if she does give you a bone, run with it."
"How many cases has she worked on?"
Redd gestured toward the folder. "It's all in there. Read it, and then if you still have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them. Now get going. She's waiting for you."
J lowered the receiver back into its cradle. Chewing her lower lip, she started up the stairs to her bedroom to change out of the shorts and t-shirt she was wearing. With two detectives on their way over she needed to wear something a bit more subtle. Something with a little drab attached to it so as not to draw any attention to herself.
Something she could hopefully hide behind.
Reaching her bedroom door at the top of the stairs, her ears caught the sound of the radio she'd left on in the downstairs parlor. She kept it on almost constantly when she was awake. It drowned out the silence in the big old Victorian style home where she'd grown up. A home where she was now the sole owner and occupant.
Vaguely she listened with one ear to the news as she searched the closet for appropriate attire. Her hands landed on a simple dove-gray shift she liked. Taking it out of the closet, she added the blue-and-gray patterned silk scarf that went with it. Quickly she changed.
She knew they would be calling her. She also knew why they needed her help. The only thing that eluded her was time. She had never been able to put her finger right on exact times, just relative ones like today or last week, or two years from now. Which was why she tried so damn hard to make sure that whatever she "saw" was as accurate as she could explain it.
Details like men's faces, buildings and locations--these things she could handle well enough. They were easy to describe to the police artist. J prided herself on the fact that she could break down everything that came to her into minute adjectives, right down to the feel of rough cotton gloves over the skin, or the burn of harsh summer sunlight coming through a window.
Sighing, J dumped her dirty clothes into the hamper in the bathroom before returning to her bedroom. Brushing her thick hair into a ponytail, she quickly rolled it into a bun at the back of her neck and pinned it. A quick spritz of hairspray would keep the baby-fine hairs from flying into her face. Satisfied, she pulled the scarf over her head and went downstairs to wait for the detectives to arrive.
She debated whether or not to leave the radio on. Sometimes she needed to hear its impersonal voice when she walked up the porch steps to the front door. It sounded like someone still lived there.
Not that J didn't like the solitude. She truly valued her aloneness at times. The last thing she needed was to have a roommate who would leave stuff scattered thither and yon, as her grandmama had referred to it, and become more of a bother than a comfortable second presence in the house.
No, it was better to be able to find things exactly where she'd left them. To know that if anything got broken or disturbed, it was her fault alone. To know that every phone call and every piece of mail that came to the house was just for her.
It also helped when some of the visions came to her, some of them so fierce and terrifying that she'd wake up screaming. On those nights the noise would not awaken anyone else.
Better, it was good to be alone where no one would criticize her. Or tease her about her ability. Or rail at her for some of the things she saw, if she happened to mention them by accident.
Thank the dear Lord Grandmama had understood.
They will be here soon.
J smiled. Okay, that was a given, she told the little voice inside her head that spoke to her. Still, soon was another time-related word. It could mean ten minutes from now, or a couple of days from now. How far was it to the Aaron Street Station? Not far, if she remembered correctly. Roughly fifteen to twenty minutes away, if they managed to catch all the lights green.
This would be the first time she'd worked with the captain over at Aaron Street. In the past she had worked on two cases for the downtown station on Sender, and two for the Vickers County Sheriff's Department. Four cases in all as herself, and three others where she'd phoned in tips to the hotline before she had been able to gather up enough courage to present herself in person.
A shudder ran through her. J ran a nervous hand over her shift to make sure the dress wasn't too wrinkled. She went into the kitchen for a drink of water, hoping it would help to calm her. The first meeting always went badly. It would take the men a while to accept her, and a bit more time to accept whatever it was she had to tell them. She hated these first encounters, but she had no choice if she wanted to continue doing what she did.
It wasn't as if she needed the money. No. After her family had been killed in that car accident, the same one that had nearly taken her life as well, she found out that her father had invested well over the years. Mostly in electronics. Gas. Some Internet stocks. A few shares of a global telecommunications company that hit it big with cell phones. She wasn't rich by any means, but the dividends alone were enough keep her living comfortably for the rest of her life.
Her grandmama had taken her in and raised her. J vaguely remembered the house where she used to live, back when her parents were still alive. It was a one-story affair, but she had been six when the accident had taken it all away from her. Even before her grandmother died and left her this house.
Grandmama had owned the Victorian home she loved to visit. She adored the smell of the place, with its cedar closets, and ages-old bedding and clothing stashed in the trunks in the attic. She could spend hours playing dress up. So when Grandmama had asked if she wanted to live there, J had embraced the woman with hope and tears. Grandmama knew of her specialness, and there were many times J and the elderly woman had sat in the kitchen over cups of tea, discussing her ability. Grandmama had never criticized nor condemned her for what she'd been born with.
Faintly her ears caught the sound of a car entering the gravel driveway. Wiping her sweaty palms on her thighs, she went to wait in the foyer.
No, she took the jobs because she couldn't stand by any longer with this knowledge in her head and not share it with anyone. For years she had "seen" the cruelties inflicted upon others, most of them innocents. It wasn't until that small boy had been abducted that she had screwed up her courage and called in to the tip line to leave the first of many messages she would later phone in. Back then her payoff had been to hear that the guilty had been nabbed, tried, and sentenced. That had been her ultimate satisfaction.
Until the Milkman murders.
A cold finger ran its icy nail up her spine. It had taken everything out of her to approach the police in person because her gift had screamed that she needed to view the scenes. She had to go there and relive every brutal blow. After putting herself through that ordeal, the information she had given the authorities had been enough to have them put a tail on Leander Wrightson. Unaware he had been fingered, the man had merrily gone about his business, only to find the law waiting for him when he entered the kitchen of intended victim number five.
After the jury pronounced him guilty, J had been handed a check for a thousand dollars. She had never taken money before, even when her calls to the tip line paid off. It wasn't a lot of money, but she had accepted it. She had put it in a special savings account. Why, she didn't know. It was one of those time issues again. Some day down the road she would need that money. Her inheritance was enough to keep the house and property in her name. Enough to pay the taxes and the bills. To put food on the table and clothes on her back.
This extra, it would be needed for something else. And long ago J had come to accept whatever the voices in her head told her, no questions asked. After that first job, she had taken anything the police offered in payment as long as it was at least a thousand dollars. She didn't balk if they offered her more, but she wouldn't take less than a grand. Again, she had no idea why.
The doorbell rang. It was one of those old-time chimes that sounded like a clock striking the hour. Grandmama said the tune was called Church Bells Will Ring. The house was full of odd nuances like that.
Pasting on her best smile, J opened the door, and hoped the detectives coming to get her hadn't already formed a permanent opinion about her.
"Friggin' hell! Can you believe it? A psychic!"
Sam glanced sideways at his partner. The scowl on the man's face looked permanent. "Chill, bro. No judging until we get there, okay?"
Silence flowed past them, as well as the scenery. Apparently this woman lived in the older part of town. Either she was from old money, or she was a sitting duck for the dregs of humanity. Not a good choice, either way.
He glanced again at the man sitting in the passenger seat. One thing Kiel was never good at was disguising his emotions. "Hey, don't worry. If you can fool a precinct full of experienced cops, this woman won't be able to figure it out, either. So chill. Put on your best homicide detective guise, and I'll do most of the talking." He made a motion toward the folder in the man's lap. "What did you find out?"
Kiel snorted. "Not a helluva lot personally. But she's been instrumental in at least seven cases, three voluntarily and four by request."
"Any idea how she works?"
"Yeah. Like, does she roll her eyes back into her head and go into a coma, and act as if she's possessed? Does she use a crystal ball or some of them Tarot cards? Or does she hear little voices in her head telling her who's guilty?"
"You're nuts." Kiel sneered.
"Yeah? Well, have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?" Sam shot right back. Several long seconds passed, when Sam shook his head. "Sorry, Kiel. I went over the line."
"No. It's understandable." The man snorted again. "There isn't a person alive who can say that what we're having to go through is normal."
"Alive or dead." Sam tried to smile over his bad pun, but failed. "Twenty-one twelve. Was that the address?"
"Yeah. Oh, wow."
Their first impression of the old house was awe. Someone had taken the time, trouble, and money to keep it looking almost as it must have appeared when it had first been built. Right down to the gingerbread scrollwork and handcarved wooden balustrades and porch railings. Overall it was a bright, sunny yellow with warm brownish trim. A profusion of sunflowers overflowed in the flowerbeds. A white rocking chair with a red-checked cushion moved lazily at the end of the porch. The place look appealing and inviting. As friendly and inviting as a step back in time.
"How old is this Laurent woman?"
Kiel flipped open the folder. "Doesn't say."
"I got five bucks that says she could be our grandma."
"I'm not taking that bet, Sam. Why else would she need an escort back to the station? She can't drive. Probably doesn't even own a car."
They pulled into the gravel driveway. At that instant they were faced with what was left of the garage. "It's a greenhouse," Kiel stated the obvious.
"Yeah. Probably uses it to grow the herbs she needs to concoct her potions and stuff."
They got out of the car and followed the brick walkway to the porch. Taking the short steps to the front door, Sam raised his hand to knock on the door. But before he could complete the gesture, the door opened. Both men did a mental and physical step back.
The woman was covered so completely, only her face was visible. Oh, but what a face. It was the face of a world-class model. Young, with perfect angles and not a blemish to be seen. Lightly arched brows were the color of caramels. She was wearing a shapeless shift in a bluish-gray color. A scarf in similar shades was tied over her head, hiding the rest of her hair. But that face, those ripe lips...and those eyes.
Kiel was the first to speak. "Hello. I'm Detective Stark. Will you please let Miss Laurent know my partner and I are here?"
The lovely woman stared at him as a frown slowly darkened the perfect face. Kiel realized with a start that she wore a pale gloss over her full lips. Otherwise her face was bare of makeup. More amazing were her eyes. They were hazel in color, except for the outer edges which were brown. Very unusual. Very arresting.
"Who?" she repeated.
Kiel paused. Was she asking who they were? Or who they had come to get? He decided to try again. Reaching inside his jacket, he produced his bifold and flipped it open to show her his ID and badge. "We're Detectives Stark and Reese. We're from the Aaron Street Station. Our captain sent us over to take Miss Laurent over to a crime scene. Will you let her know we're here?"
"Who are you?"
His mouth felt dry. It was a feeling he wasn't accustomed to. Even spookier was the definitely perplexed expression growing more pronounced on the woman's countenance. He started to comment on it when Sam came up behind him.
"Would you tell your mother we're here?"
The woman's gaze shifted immediately over to Sam. Quietly she replied, "The name is pronounced 'Leh-rahnt'. And my mother died twenty years ago." Her mouth drew into a thin line. "I'm J Laurent. I'm the person Captain Redd phoned to ask for help."
"You live here alone?" Sam asked.
Her gaze shifted from Sam back to Kiel, and the perplexed look increased. "Who are you?" she repeated.
"I know what you're saying," she abruptly cut in. "Maybe I'm not making myself clear. Maybe I should be asking what are you?"
Sam glanced at his partner to see the man grow pale. It shocked him. "Miss Laurent, is there a problem?"
Instead of answering, she stuck a hand out in Kiel's direction, fingers spread. "Let me touch you," she ordered. Demanded.
At that moment both men understood the truth.
J Laurent was blind.
Steeling himself, Kiel walked toward her and held out a hand. Sam held his breath as the woman's fingers came in contact with his partner's.
A stream of warmth flowed through him. The sensation was enough to make him jerk away. J tilted her head in his direction, but the puzzled look remained stamped on her beautiful features. Underneath the flawless complexion, her skin paled.
An uncomfortable silence passed between them until Sam cleared his throat and stepped forward to offer his arm. "Miss Laurent, we need to be going. Here. Let me help you to the car."
She opened her mouth to say something, but decided not to. Reaching around, she closed the door, locked it, then stuffed the key in a side pocket of her dress. She placed a hand on Sam's arm, and the three of them walked back to the car.
"Let me sit in the back," she requested in a no-nonsense tone.
Sam looked at his partner, then nodded before opening the door to help her inside. Quietly the two men got into the front seat.
"We're taking you directly to the scene of the crime," Kiel began. His voice was quivering. In fact his whole body was still shaking from the contact. Her touching him for just those few seconds had felt like standing in front of a heater, with wave after wave of warmth washing over him. It had been a very long time since he'd felt that kind of warmth from another human being. Not even Sam gave him that kind of intense reaction.
"I would appreciate it if you would give me a direct answer," J requested again. This time her tone was more derisive, and silently brooked no further delay.
Turning in his seat so he could look back at her, Kiel repeated, "You mean what am I? I'm a detective with the force. Homicide division."
Her eyes seemed to bore straight through him, but their effect on him was even more pronounced. For the first time in the month since it had happened, Kiel Stark felt totally exposed and vulnerable. Extremely vulnerable.
And turned on.
Geez! Get a grip on yourself! You of all people can't be feeling this!
But he was, and he was damned if he could understand why. Why? Why?
J chewed on her lower lip. Kiel could see her teeth were like little white pearls. A flash of desire stroked him, surprising him, and for once he was glad she couldn't see the hunger he knew had to be in his eyes.
"That's not what I mean, and you damn well know it." Her head swiveled in Sam's direction. "You, Detective, I have no problem with. But you." She turned back to Kiel. "There's something about you that's throwing all my beliefs into a meat grinder and grinding them to bits. You have the aura, but I can touch you. What's going on, Detective? You frighten me, and I don't like this feeling. Not one bit. If I'm going to help you solve this case, we need to be upfront with each other, and now. Or else I'm going to have to call your captain back and tell him to send me two other men, or I'm bowing out." She paused, and Kiel could hear her racing heart. He could also see her visibly attempting to slow down her breathing.
"I-I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do. You know you're different from your partner there. What did you say your name was?"
"Stark. Kiel Stark."
"And you?" she asked Sam.
Again she turned her head from one to the other, her eyes stable and unmoving, yet still mesmerizing. "You're related."
"Yeah," Kiel admitted. "We're half-brothers."
A tiny ghost of a smile touched those full lips. "Different last names. You must share a mother."
"How would you know we're related?" Sam asked. They were nearing the feeder road which would take them straight to the main highway.
"You both have the same shape aura, but they're different. If you were full brothers, your auras would be almost identical, except for their color."
"What color is mine?" Kiel smiled.
She must have heard the amusement in his tone. "I don't know how to explain color to you, Detective Stark, because I've been blind since birth. So the way I define color is nothing like your definition." Once more the frown darkened her face, and her tone suddenly became harder. "But something isn't right here, and I don't like it. Detective Stark, is there a reason why your aura is full of light?"
He shrugged, then realized she couldn't see it. "I thought auras were made of light anyway. Besides, how would you know about light if you're blind?"
"Because my grandmama explained to me about light. It's like the sun. Or the heat from a lamp, or a candle flame. I've felt all manner of heat, and that's the kind that surrounds you. Lots of light and heat, bright and glowing. It's not the same kind of aura normal people have, Detective."
"Not like mine?" Sam piped up, glancing at her through the rearview mirror.
"No." She shook her head slightly. "Normal people's auras have their own color. Their own personal brightness, until they die. And then their auras make this unexplained flash of light, like a big burst of energy, before the aura fades and disappears." Her sightless eyes seemed to reach into Kiel for the truth. "You're not alive, but you're not dead. You're stuck somewhere in the middle, in the midst of that gigantic flash. You're burning so brightly, you're like this enormous beacon. But...but I touched you. I felt your hand." Her voice grew softer. "Are you dead, Detective? Or do you have some sort of fatal disease which has you teetering on the edge of that abyss?"
"If you're wanting to know if I'm dangerous, the answer is no," Kiel began to explain slowly, when Sam broke in.
"This'll have to wait, everyone. We're here."
Kiel opened the car door for her, stopping himself just short of reaching out to take her arm. It was a gesture he normally would have thought nothing about a month ago. Fortunately Sam came around the back of the car and offered his arm to help guide her into the condemned apartment building. Still, he couldn't help the little shiver that ran through him when J turned around to give him a sad look. If he didn't know better, he would swear she had wanted to touch him again.
They broke the police barrier tape on the door and entered the building. The scene of the crime was on the third floor. Silently they took the stairs since power had been shut off to the building some time ago.
Keeping behind her, Kiel watched the way the woman's backside swayed when she walked. It would have been nicer if there had been a bit more definition to that bottom, but her choice of attire did a better than average job of keeping her concealed. That dress shielded her femininity like a damn burqa.
He saw her smile. "I'm soaking it all up like a sponge, Detective. Give me a bit longer to sort out the details."
Kiel glanced up at Sam, who shot him back one of those be careful looks he saw too frequently these days.
They continued climbing until they reached the third landing. Kiel followed along behind them instead of going on ahead as he normally would. Whenever he and Sam were on a case, just the two of them, he could be a bit freer with his newfound abilities. This having to play it totally on the level was leaving an irksome taste in his mouth that he was surprised to discover he didn't like. The woman was blind, for goodness sake!
Yeah, but she was also as sharp as a finely honed blade. Blindness, in this case, wasn't her weakness. If he tried any one of his stunts, as Sam sometimes called them, Kiel knew the woman would call him out on them.
Pausing outside of apartment number 316, Sam gave him a nod to go ahead. Sounding a quick sigh, Kiel tore off the tape barring them from entering and gave the handle a little jiggle to make it sound like he was using a key to open the door. Then he quickly went through the steel partition, into the apartment, and unlocked the door from the other side. J wore a little smile but said nothing, and for a second he wondered if the woman was aware of the little trick he'd pulled. Mentally shrugging, Kiel decided not to say anything unless she brought it up first. They were here to investigate a triple homicide, not discuss the attributes of a man who had died over a month ago.
Sam clicked on his flashlight and quickly scanned the empty room. Both men watched as the woman stepped over the threshold, then paused. She dropped her hand from Sam's arm to wrap both of her arms about her chest. Kiel realized the woman was cold, or at least shivering from something like cold. The impulse to put his own arms around her to stave off the chill was like an ache he couldn't ignore, but he could fight it. Maybe because of her disability, J Laurent exuded defenselessness. But she also possessed a sense of calm strength he found intriguing.
Silently the detectives watched and waited for the seer to make a statement, allowing her to either prove or disprove their half-formed opinions about her. J took two steps into the room and stopped. She turned in a full circle as she continued to rub her arms against the chill, even though the temperature outside had to be hovering in the seventies.
"Three people died here," she informed them.
Sam snorted. Kiel knew why. The news of the murders had been splashed all over the papers and television for the past week.
"They died the same way two others died." She lifted her face in their direction. "You have two more bodies at the morgue who fit the same MO."
Now that bit of information was something that hadn't been released to the press. Nor was it common knowledge among the rest of the other investigators. Kiel felt a grin come over him as Sam's eyebrows lifted a good half-inch.
J took another four steps into the room until she was facing the back wall of the living area. Turning slightly to her left, she indicated the back rooms with a lift of her chin. "Are the bedrooms there? I'm feeling something from that direction."
"Damn," Sam muttered under his breath.
Kiel concurred. The bodies had been found in the very last bedroom. Again, undisclosed information.
Normally he wouldn't have given much credence to her findings. Nearly two-thirds of all homicides took place in the victim's bedroom. Beds made a perfect stage for such horrors. But in this case all three victims had been slaughtered--and slaughtered was the only word Kiel could find to describe what he'd seen. All three had been found together in the back bedroom at around eight p.m. The coroner had put their deaths at approximately one in the afternoon. Which begged the question: What would three grown men be doing in a back bedroom at one o'clock in the middle of a weekday?
"Detective Stark, would you show me the way, please?"
He started. She seemed to feel his reluctance, and held out a hand that trembled slightly.
"Please?" she reiterated, waiting.
He gave his brother a little nod, and Sam tried to slip in.
J immediately lifted her hand. A scowl crossed her features. "Don't ever try to do that again," she admonished Sam darkly. "The difference I see between you and your brother is as obvious as dark and light to me." She looked straight at Kiel. "I have my reasons for wanting you to guide me back there."
Giving himself a moment to collect himself, Kiel walked over and held out an arm.
He thought he had prepared himself for her contact. He thought he could handle her touch this second time. How wrong he was.
He saw her hand descend upon the sleeve of his jacket. Saw it. Felt it. And his whole body seemed to melt from the warm summer breeze blowing over him. Through him. Smelling sweetly scented like flowers in a meadow.
Closing his eyes, he could remember days from his childhood when he would climb the huge cottonwood in his backyard and sit up there for hours reading a book. Reading, napping, and letting the sun and wind flow over him. It was his most favorite childhood memory.
It all came back to him now. The memory. The feel. The smell. And, most of all, the sense of utter peacefulness it had given him.
And then it was gone. J's fingers tightened slightly over his arm. Without thinking, Kiel placed his other hand over hers to help steady her nerves. It was like holding a warm rose.
Slowly they walked down the narrow hallway, passing the second bedroom and bath, until they reached the back bedroom. It was pitch black, but Kiel could see his way as clearly as if it was daylight. J, of course, wouldn't know any difference. They paused in the doorway as if he instinctively knew she would hesitate there.
He kept his eyes on her face, on the expressions he saw flit across her skin and the surface of her eyes. She flinched twice, and her smooth skin appeared to grow paler.
Suddenly she took a step back, and her fear was a taste of acid that jolted him. "Kiel. It's still here," she whispered hoarsely.
"What's still here?"
She turned, pulling and tugging on him. "Get me out of here," she begged. "Get me out of this place! We gotta go!"
He ventured a quick look back at the now sterilized bedroom before taking her back into the living room, but it wasn't enough. J had to be removed to the hallway before she stopped shivering. This time he didn't think twice before putting an arm around her shoulder.
Warm summer days. The hint of jasmine in the air. Bright blue skies and clouds shaped like animal crackers.
Kiel had never wanted to bury his face against a woman as badly as he wanted to at that moment. Bury himself along her soft skin and hold her. Protect her.
Lifting her face, J sniffed loudly and pulled out a tissue from her pocket to blow her nose. "I'm sorry," she apologized in a low voice. "It got to me back there."
"What got to you?" Sam asked on the other side. They were leaning against the hallway wall, just outside the apartment.
"The way those people died." She looked over at Sam. "The room may have been cleaned and disinfected, but you'll never be able to remove the taint that will haunt that place forever."
Giving her shoulder a little squeeze, Kiel gently asked, "How did they die, Miss Laurent?"
Her face went even paler. "They were stabbed to death. No. More like punctured to death. Afterwards, their bodies were shredded. That one man, the one you found inside the closet, he didn't die until he was torn apart."
Both men felt shock go through their systems. Kiel believed he was long past feeling anything, but her words, and the feel of her shudder beneath his hand, gave him an overpowering sense of revulsion.
"The weapon, Miss Laurent. Can you give us a clue as to what was used as the weapon?"
Good old Sam. He looked ready to spew, but he was determined to find out the specifics.
"A-a piece of, umm, a piece of metal. About this long." She held out her hands approximately eighteen inches apart. "Round, like a pipe, but without the hole inside. It was solid, like a gigantic piece of spaghetti. Oh, and it had curves on it. Grooves. If I felt one, I would recognize it."
Kiel wracked his brain for a weapon fitting her description. Of course, it was highly possible the killer had used an unorthodox weapon. Something other than a knife or tool.
"Can you tell us anything about the killer?"
"Yeah. You're not going to like my answer, either." Taking a deep, ragged breath, J told them, "The man you're looking for is dead, just like you, Detective Stark."
God, she felt dirty. Filthy, slimy dirty, right through to the marrow of her bones. At any moment she felt as if she was going to heave, and it was by sheer force of will that she kept her lips pressed tightly together and prayed she didn't. Otherwise it would make her appear weak in front of these detectives. It would make him think the worst of her. Like maybe she wasn't cut out to do this kind of work. That she was no better than those other weak-willed women he had dated in the past.
He squeezed her shoulder again, and all the blood rushed to her feet. Terror like a huge, velvet hammer came out of nowhere and began pounding at her skull. She tried to call out but her body had stopped functioning.
Dimly she was aware of him picking her up, and a heartbeat later she was outside where she could breathe again. Breathe in and out the clean air as he held her hand and called her name.
This is insane! The man is dead, which is impossible. Dead people don't walk around in the real world, functioning like normal living people. Dead people don't wear suits and resume their lives the way they had been before they'd passed on.
Also, dead people couldn't touch you like this, much less give you an overwhelming feeling of security like this man did. Then again, she had never met a person with the kind of aura Kiel Stark bore. It wasn't just his life force emanating from him. It was more than that. It was filled with strength, conviction, and a passion for life that had no bounds. And it held belief. Belief in himself and what he could or couldn't do. Belief that somewhere there was a reason for why he was, and what he was.
"J? Miss Laurent. Are you going to be okay?"
There were steps coming to join them. They belonged to the other detective who was running to catch up.
"Jesus, Kiel! Don't go pulling that ghost shit on me! You scared the crap out of me, disappearing like that!"
"I had to get her out of there, Sam. That place has a negative energy that was just sucking the life out of both of us."
"Yeah, well, next time, take the stairs like I had to. How's she doing?"
"I think she'll be all right."
"Think we need to take her to the hospital?"
"No. Give her a chance to come to. Like I said, that apartment is full of some kind of blackness. It's horrible. I can't describe it any better than to say it's an evil blackness, so thick you could almost open your mouth and feel it reach down your throat so it can tear out your lungs."
"Dear God. Think she felt it, too?"
"Oh, yeah. She had to."
Her hand was squeezed, making her head reel again. This wasn't possible, to feel his skin all dry and warm, and slightly calloused. When he had put his arm around her shoulders, she would swear she'd felt his heat. Heard the steady thud of his heart. Smelled his sweat and soap, and aftershave. Which was totally impossible.
J breathed in deeply, and the detective squeezed her hand again.
"Are you gonna be okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks for getting me out of there. It was...that thing." Taking a deep breath, she struggled to sit up. Kiel helped her, propping her against the low brick wall that bordered the complex. Sam walked over to the car, popped the trunk, and extracted a bottle of water from the cooler they kept in the back, and brought it over to her.
"Thanks." She felt its smooth coolness when he placed it in her hand. The water refreshed her parched throat. It also gave her the chance to get her head straight. First thing she wanted to do when she got back home was take a hot shower. Try to wash away some of those foul memories.
"You feel like going down to the station and making a statement?" Sam asked.
"Yeah." She nodded. "Yeah. As long as it's away from this place." Get her away from here. Enough was enough. If she got through the night without having any nightmares, it would be a miracle.
"You know we might have to come back here," Kiel warned her.
J shook her head. "I won't need to. I found out all I needed." Turning her face in his direction, she added, "But I will need to see the corpses. And where those other two were killed."
"Let's get back to the station first."
Kiel got to his feet and helped her up. It no longer bothered her to touch him. In fact, she was dreading having to let him go.
She raised a hand to her head. This whole thing was beginning to give her a headache. It was too surreal. She needed time to think, and space. Suddenly J wanted to go back to her quiet home and the safety of those old walls.
The thought came to her unbidden, and she groaned softly.
"Are you sure we don't need to take you to the hospital first and get you checked out?"
It was Kiel, sitting in the backseat with her. His arm was lying on top of the seat, behind her. When she leaned her head back she could feel it like a length of steel at her neck. It felt good.
"No. I'll be okay. It sometimes takes me a while to shake it off." She tried an apologetic smile, hoping he wouldn't notice her nervousness. "I'm not the seasoned veteran like you are, Detective."
"Trust me. Things are a lot more complicated from where I'm sitting," he told her.
She could hear his frustration. And something more. Loneliness. Sadness. Bitterness.
They remained quiet the rest of the way to the station. Kiel removed his arm, to her disappointment. Then, to her shock, he took one of her hands and laced his fingers through hers, leaving their hands to rest on the seat between them. Somehow she managed to hide the smile.
When the car finally slowed, turning and dipping into the station's parking lot, Kiel spoke up again. "Miss Laurent, if I might ask a favor of you?"
She tilted her face to let him know she was listening.
"My, uhh, circumstances are not known by anyone other than Sam. Please, I'm asking if you would keep it to yourself about what you've learned about me."
"How long have you been like this?"
"A month. It's a long story."
"And one I am eager to hear," she told him. "Your full story for my silence. That's my price." She could hear his smile.
"It's a deal."
When Sam stopped the car, J allowed Kiel to help her out of the back. He released her hand, taking her elbow instead to lead the way.
"Watch your step up."
"You've done this before?" she murmured in his direction. "Escorted the blind?"
"No, ma'am. You're my first."
"I appreciate the help."
Sam led the way until they reached the inner offices. From there they went straight to the captain's office.
"Sir? This is Miss Laurent," Sam introduced her.
Captain Redd got to his feet and stuck out a hand. "Glad to have you come down to the station, Miss uhh..."
J paused, tilting her head in his direction. "You stuck out your hand, didn't you?" she asked him. The man was tall. She could tell from where his voice emanated above her head. "Forgive the awkwardness, Captain." Holding out her hand, she waited for the man to take it.
"Oh, Jesus. You're..."
"Blind. Yes, sir. All my life." Quickly she shook her head, hoping to get over this patch as smoothly as possible. "Detective Stark, is there a chair nearby?"
Instead of answering, Kiel brought a chair over to her, gently bumping the seat against the back of her legs to let her know it was there. J carefully sat down, noting that the two detectives remained standing.
The captain cleared his throat. "I didn't know. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about, Captain. I'm here to help, so let's get on with it."
"We picked up Miss Laurent and took her over to the crime scene," Sam told the man. He continued to explain what had happened as J half-listened to the retelling.
In the background she could sense another person. His aura was calm and reserved. Nonthreatening. Kiel was to her left, letting his brother go over the details. She knew that if she turned her head in his direction he would be glowing like an immense bonfire. The man was throwing off heat and light more strongly than anything she had ever encountered before in her life.
But there was something else. Something she couldn't define or explain. Because for some incredible reason he had managed to awaken a part of her that had been lying dormant for over a decade. And that realization terrified her.
When Sam got to the part where she had blacked out, Captain Redd turned to face her. "Are you all right now, Miss Laurent?"
"I'm fine. Is there someone you can bring in to take notes while I debrief?"
It didn't take long for an assistant to bring them a tape recorder. J knew that once she was finished, everything would be transcribed and copies faxed to the other station houses in the city. J licked her lips and tried to calm herself, when she felt a paper cup being pressed against the fingers of one hand. Flashing Kiel a grateful smile, she took a sip of the cool water.
Slowly she explained in detail what she had seen. What she had witnessed as a sort of third entity, watching from a distance, unable to do anything to help except to see the horror as it occurred. Only what she had seen hadn't been everything. She wasn't able to tell them all they needed know, as though she had been sitting through a movie or listening to an opera. What she saw was very disjointed, as if someone had taken a mirror and shattered it, then performed those atrocities in front of it. She couldn't see it all, but she had viewed enough in the broken pieces to burn the images in her mind. They were enough to make her feel unclean. Enough to give her nightmares for the next week.
This was one case where J knew she would be glad when her part was over. That way she could take a deep, cleansing mental breath, and hope it wouldn't take too long for her to forget the worst of it.
After she was done, she drained the paper cup and sat back in the chair. All grew quiet. The tape recorder whirred softly.
Captain Redd moved in his seat, making the leather upholstery squeak. "All right. So at least we have some idea what kind of weapon we're looking for, which is more than we had in the first place. We also know it was done by one assailant."
J waited to hear either Sam or Kiel make a comment about the fact that she had claimed the killer was dead, but they remained silent. Apparently they were willing to keep mum for her sake, to prove that trust ran both ways.
"What next, Miss Laurent?"
"I need to see the other crime scene where the first two bodies were killed," she announced. "I also want to see the victims, or what's left of them."
"Any particular reason why?" the captain inquired.
J shrugged. "I can't explain how my gift works. But I've discovered that the closer I get, and the longer I'm around things pertaining to a case, the more I seem to glean." She shrugged again. "Sorry I can't be more explicit."
"Very well. I understand, I think. Reese, you and Stark take Miss Laurent where she needs to go, and keep me posted."
"Yes, sir," Sam replied.
Before she knew it, they were back outside in the parking lot and heading for the car. Abruptly she stopped, holding out her arms to steady herself. Kiel was instantly there, taking both her hands in his. The contact poured a symphony of sound into her soul, the music resounding and full of promise. There was no way she could stop the tears from filling her eyes. Had her life always been this empty? Oh, dearest heavens, what was this man doing to her?
"What's wrong?" a voice beside her demanded.
She opened her mouth and tried to respond, when Kiel replied, "She needs to rest a bit more. Isn't that right, Miss Laurent?"
"It's after noon. What do you say we have a bite to eat before going any further?" Sam suggested.
Eat? With all this putrid garbage floating around inside her subconscious? But J knew he was right. She needed to feed her body, then will the food to stay down. Giving a slight nod, she got into the backseat. Disappointment shrouded her when Kiel took the passenger seat in front.
Digging her nails into her palms, she tried to calm herself. Reason with herself. Once she got home she would take one of those little pills Dr. Milester prescribed for her, and then she would be able to sort out this whole mental and emotional mess she was starting to drown in. Otherwise, there was no telling what kind of wreck she would be tomorrow morning.
"What does the J stand for?"
J grinned into her glass of water. They were at a small diner she had never visited, but whatever was cooking in the kitchen had made her stomach rumble the moment they'd come through the door. Kiel led her to a booth, but had taken his seat opposite, next to his brother. Not knowing the menu, she'd asked for a simple BLT with water when the waitress came to take their order.
"Why do you ask? Lots of people use an initial as part of their name. Like TJ or GW."
Sitting in front of the men, and able to see them both side-by-side, she was surprised to see the difference in their auras. Dead people didn't have an aura. They had an emptiness devoid of color or light surrounding them. An emptiness that was still detectable, like a gaping hole waiting to swallow them. That was how she knew they were dead. She knew that from experience. But Kiel was a totally different entity. Sam's aura was strong, literally flaring in huge, dark purple arcs over his head. Yet the man next to him made him seem pale in comparison.
There was a glass of water in front of him. He hadn't ordered anything to eat, which hadn't surprised her. Occasionally he would lift the glass to his mouth as if to take a drink, in an attempt to keep up appearances.
"Let me guess. If I guess correctly, will you admit it?"
"Go ahead, Rumplestiltskin. Do your worst."
"Janet. Jane. Julie. JoBeth. Janice." He grinned to where she could hear the chuckle in his voice. "Janine? Juliet? Oh, I know! Jezebel!"
Giggling, J leaned back against the cool seat back. "Enough, Detective. Let's call a halt for now."
"For now," Sam wryly commented over his cup of coffee. "You don't know how persistent my brother can be when he sets his mind to something." There was a slight pause, then he continued in a more cautious tone. "If you don't mind me asking."
"What's a girl like me doing the kind of stuff I do?"
"Well, if you want to put it that way, yeah. Have you always had the ability to see this kind of stuff before?"
"Kinda, I think." She took another sip of water to calm herself. "My mother quit teaching after my parents discovered I was blind. They were in their forties when I was born. They had pretty much accepted the fact that they wouldn't be able to have children of their own, so they adopted a little boy. He was two when they got him. And then, boom. Mommy found out she was pregnant with me." She smiled. "Like they say, a sure way to make it rain is to wash your car. And a sure way to have kids is to adopt one. Anyway, from as early as I can remember I saw things. Not always unpleasant stuff, but most of it was. Like the time our cat darted out into the road and got hit by a car. I remember screaming and crying, and Douggie trying to get me to hush."
"Douggie?" Kiel asked.
"My brother. My parents named him Douglas. Anyway, my mother came running out of the house to see why I was making such a fuss. They tried to tell me Snickers was okay. The next day Snickers ran into the street and was hit by a car, exactly as I had told them. After that, I didn't see things often, but when I did, I always told Mommy." She sipped at her water again. During the lull their food arrived. She wasn't prepared to be as hungry as she was when she took her first bite.
They quietly ate for a few minutes, until Kiel gently asked, "Where are your parents now?"
"They're dead. So is Douggie." Wiping her mouth, she laid her sandwich back on the plate. It still hurt to talk about the accident, even twenty years later. "We were taking Douggie to summer camp. I didn't want to go. I kept telling them there was a big truck that was going to hurt us if we went, but Mommy and Daddy told me everything was going to be all right. They made me go with them, even when I kicked and screamed and begged for them not to go. Not to take me. After they buckled me into my seat, I still fought them. Once we were on our way, I undid my seat belt and got down on the floorboard, and huddled up into a little ball." She stopped to take a shaky breath.
"J, if you don't want--" Kiel began.
"No. It's okay." She took another deep breath. "It was a cement mixer. It ran a red light and struck Mommy's side of the car, where Mommy and Douggie were sitting. All of my family died that day. I got banged up pretty badly, but I survived because I'd hidden on the floorboard behind Daddy's seat."
"How old were you?" Sam asked.
"Six. Grandmama was in her late sixties, but she was my only living relative. She took me in to raise me." A soft snort. "Of course, the last ten years of her life I took care of her more than she did me."
"Is that old house your grandmother's?"
"Yeah. It's mine now. Between the settlement I got from the cement company, which she put in a trust for me until I turned twenty-one, and both inheritances, I've been very lucky not to have to find work to support myself. I'm not rich, by any means. I still have to watch every penny. But I don't need a lot of frivolous extras like big-screen televisions or designer clothes." She gave them a small smile at the joke.
"When did your grandmother die?" It was Sam again. Kiel was being unusually quiet, unless that was normal for him.
"Five years ago. Taking care of her in her last years was like a full-time job."
"And this gift of yours?"
She gave a half-hearted shrug. "It grew. It got stronger and clearer. Either that, or I learned how to interpret it better. Anyway, after Grandmama died, I grew more aware of things. Of the world. I listen to the news almost constantly. Every now and then Miss Cassie brings me a movie to listen to."
"You listen to movies?" It was Kiel, finally breaking his long silence.
She flashed him a smile. "Yeah. The school for the blind has a library where I can check out books and tapes. They have a special selection of movies that the studios put out especially for the blind. There's a narration in the soundtrack that tells you what's going on on the screen, to keep you posted."
"Who's Miss Cassie?"
"She's the lady I hired when Grandmama got sick. She comes by the house every day and does a little cleaning. Sometimes she'll cook me lunch. Do a bit of straightening. Some laundry. She reads me my mail. Helps me pay the bills."
"Geez, and you trust her not to rob you blind?" Sam exclaimed.
J gave him a hard stare. "Yes, I trust her," she told him coolly. "But I also call the bank on occasion to check my accounts. Everything she tells me is the truth. When you're in my position, Detective, sometimes you can't help but trust, and pray it works out."
"What got you started working with the authorities?" Kiel softly asked.
She picked up a french fry to nibble. "Sometimes I'd hear something on the news about a killing, and I'd get a flash on it. Grandmama wouldn't let me call anyone about it. She told me a lot of people would ridicule me, if not downright disbelieve me. But after she died, I kept wanting to go to the phone and call the police. I felt like I had to, like I was obligated to, but I held back." J took a sip of water. "I finally broke down and called the tip line after the news told about that little boy who was found over in Ammiston."
"You mean the Tillot case?" Sam asked.
"Yeah. That one."
"It was you who gave the police what they were needing to convict Maguire?"
"Yeah. I told them where they could find the gloves and stuff he'd hidden after he'd dumped that child's body." A cold shudder ran through her. She'd thought she'd purged herself of that mess. She was wrong. But at least it wasn't as strong as it had been back then, back when the news was all over the papers and television, and the images were as stark as fresh blood.
"What made you stop using the tip line and come out in the open?"
It was honest concern she heard in Kiel's voice. The sound of it touched her. "The Milkman murders. I was getting flashes I couldn't connect together. I finally realized I had to get closer to the evidence before anything made sense to me. That's when I called the police and told them who I was and what I could do." She laughed softly, pausing as the waitress came up to give them their bill.
"Bet that went over like a limp rag," Sam remarked drily.
She giggled. "Oh, yeah, until I started giving them some solid facts they could chase down. Twenty-four hours later, they had their man. Since then I've helped whenever they've called on me, but on my terms. You're only the third set of detectives I've worked with. There's a pair assigned to me from each division, and they're exclusively for me. If anything ever comes up where Captain Redd needs my help again, it'll be you two who I'll work with."
"That may soon change."
She looked to Kiel. Suddenly she understood what he was saying. "When are you going to tell me your story?"
"When I'm ready," he promised.
She had the nagging feeling it may not be as soon as she'd like.
"Are you done?"
Sam paid their bill as Kiel walked her to the car parked outside. Opening the door for her, he stepped to the side, giving her the chance to pause for a moment. "Kiel?"
She sensed his startle.
"I can see a lot of things about you. You're not like other dead people I've seen in the past."
He chuckled, truly amused. "No kidding."
"No," she persisted, wanting him to understand what she was trying to say. "You're in a holding pattern of sorts. I can't figure it out right now, but when I do, do you want me to let you know?"
"Yeah, I do. Maybe it'll make some sense of this whole ordeal. But if it doesn't, it won't be your fault. Watch your feet."
She climbed into the backseat, letting him close the door after her. This time, however, she sat directly behind him so she could see his glow rising above the headrest like a dawning sun. The warmth of his spirit was already seeping into her, cupping her heart and soul with careful hands. Without him saying the words, she knew she would be seeing more of Detective Kiel Stark even after this case was over.
That knowledge alone would help her through the ordeal of the next few hours.
By four o'clock she was ready to call it a day. Not only was she mentally wrung out, but her emotional stability had suffered enough spikes in it to keep her running on adrenalin alone for a month.
When the detectives had taken her to the site where the first two victims had been found, she roughly informed them that the site was bogus.
"But lividity was set here," Sam had argued. "There's blood. Scuff marks. All the signs that the killings took place here."
"And I'm telling you they weren't killed here," she had snapped at them. "Dismembered, yes. But they were killed elsewhere, then brought here where the killer finished the job."
"A single killer? A dead killer?" Snorting in disbelief, Sam had stomped back to the car to try and cool down, leaving his brother to deal with her.
"He doesn't understand," she'd tried to explain. "The dead have their own strengths. They don't have the strength normal men do. Like the living do. I know I'm right, Kiel. Why won't he accept it?" She had stopped calling him detective somewhere between the diner and here. Sam, however, remained Detective Reese.
"I'll tell you why. Because he hasn't grieved for me yet."
Her head jerked up at the statement. She could sense him nodding. "He can't?"
"He won't. Not until I'm really gone. And when that'll be is anybody's guess."
The silence between them grew almost palpable. Finally, J turned and lifted her hand. "Take me home. I'm tired." She waited, knowing he was eyeing her. When he finally spoke, his despair was unmistakable.
"I don't sleep anymore, J. I don't eat. I don't fucking exist! Day runs into night, then back into day. There's no reason anymore for me being here, and yet I have no idea why I am. Or what I'm supposed to do. I know I'm dead, but I don't know why. Or how. Or where my body is."
She blinked. "You don't know where your body is?"
"I told you it's a long story."
"And I said I want to hear it."
"Not here. Not now. Later," he promised again. He took her hand, placed it on his arm, and walked her back to where Sam was standing beside the car.
They dropped her off at her home, then pulled away without letting her know when they'd be back in touch. Not a problem. They knew where she would be if and when they needed her again.
Miss Cassie had left a message for her on the answering machine. "Left you a plate in the oven, hon, and a slice of pie in the fridge. Hope you're okay. No mail worth mentioning, but I'm taking your Cyril Simone catalog home with me. I'll be by tomorrow, same time. See you then!"
The downstairs foyer smelled of lemon Pledge. Obviously Cassie had taken a dust rag to the furniture today, which meant it was Monday. J sighed. She hadn't kept track of what day it was for God knows how long, either.
Ascending the stairs slowly, she unwound the scarf from her head. She was hungry again, but more than that she was exhausted. Plus a headache was beginning to niggle its way into becoming a full-blown migraine.
Chances were she would fall asleep in the tub if she took a bath, so she opted for a quick shower instead. Passing a big-toothed comb through her wet hair, she put it into a ponytail and slipped on a pair of running shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. The difference she felt was remarkable.
Downstairs, she changed the radio over to an oldies station where one of her favorites was nearly over. "Don't suppose I could talk you into playing it again," J called over her shoulder as she headed into the kitchen.
The covered dish was in the microwave as Miss Carrie had promised. The woman knew J rarely used her real oven, commenting once that J probably had the cleanest range in the city. Fortunately, the burners were covered by a ceramic top, a precaution J had taken to prevent Grandmama and herself from accidentally burning themselves.
The pie was peach. That, along with a glass of milk, completed her meal. When she was done, she set the dirty dishes inside the dishwasher and went into the library for a comfortable read.
Reading always managed to soothe her, especially after such an emotionally packed day like today. There was very little J spent her money on, but books were her one overriding passion. And because they had to be in Braille, her costliest passion.
There was one title in particular she sought, and knew exactly where on the shelf it was located. She wanted to escape reality tonight with an adventurous tale full of revenge and love. The Count of Monte Cristo slid easily into her palm. Taking the thick tome over to the velvet-covered wingback, J curled her feet underneath her and prepared to spend an hour or so reading before calling it a night. Unless she found herself nodding off before then.
She was barely four pages into the novel when the doorbell rang. Startled, she closed the book and left it on the seat as she went to the front door.
"Who is it?"
She instantly latched onto the fact that he hadn't put the "detective" label on his name. At this time of the night, this was not intended to be a business call. She unlocked the door, opening it up to smell the evening as it was descending. "I take it this isn't an official visit?" She smiled.
He was standing there like a beacon of hope, lighting the world as if he was another sun. She could sense something different in him, but shrugged it off. To try and put him into any sort of category would be impossible. And with her own emotions frayed about her feet, she couldn't trust herself to make any true evaluations as to what he was feeling.
"Mind if I come in?"
She answered by opening the door wider and stepping back. Once he was over the threshold, she closed and locked the door. "I would offer you something to drink, but..."
Kiel chuckled. "It's all right. I just came by to offer my apologies for Sam's behavior today."
Gesturing to him, she ordered, "Come," and started to head back to the library. When she didn't hear him following, she paused. "Kiel?"
"Uhh, J? This is going to sound strange, but did you know it's darker than midnight in here?"
"Oh!" She had forgotten. But then, she had never had any use for lights. In fact, since her grandmama had died, she hadn't felt the need to buy any light bulbs to replace the ones that burnt out. Miss Cassie had fussed at her once about keeping some in supply, just in case. Although she always came in the mornings to do what she needed to do, and could throw open the windows if she needed more light. If the woman had bought any bulbs during one of her visits to the store, J was unaware where she might have stashed them. "I'm sorry, Kiel. Do I need to come back and guide you?"
A soft chuckle tickled her ears. "No. Stay there. Just, umm, don't freak out on me when I do this," he warned her.
"Come toward you without making a sound," he half-whispered, standing directly in front of her.
Despite the warning, J reacted in shock at his sudden nearness. Kiel started to apologize again, when she stopped him. "I can see why Sam yelled at you today about doing your 'ghost shit'." She giggled nervously. "Is there a reason why you do that?"
"Kind of. I found out that if I keep my solid self intact, I can still knock things over. I still feel pain. Or something like pain. Isn't that weird?"
It was weird, but fascinating as well. "But if you stop being solid, you're more like an actual ghost, and can pass through walls and stuff like that?" She felt his hand touch her arm, then travel down to her hand where it clasped hers. His touch sent little shivers through her, and all at once it was as if her entire body came to attention.
"Give the lady a blue ribbon," he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. "Where are we going?"
"To the library. It's my favorite room in the house."
They walked through the parlor into the library where J directed him to another chair. She felt him walk behind her like a passing warmth, and she shivered again. Instantly his hands were on her shoulders.
"No. Not really." His hands were running up and down her arms, rubbing over her goose-pimpled skin. It tingled with fire as his fingers lightly stroked her.
"What are you wearing?"
His face was close enough for her to smell his soap. Which was crazy because spirits didn't bathe.
"A running outfit?"
"A t-t-shirt and sh-shorts." Now her teeth were chattering, but she still didn't feel anywhere near cold. In fact, her skin felt flushed. Her face was burning up. The backs of his fingers barely brushed against one breast, and immediately she could feel an ache in the pit of her stomach she couldn't explain. Her whole body tensed, and every nerve was instantly aware of his masculinity.
"How could you tell I was in a running outfit?" she accused softly. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult. He literally was stealing the air from her lungs. Without being aware of her actions, J reached up and placed her hands over his, stopping their movement. It also pressed his knuckles firmly against the sides of her breasts. Pure raw desire slid through her, making her shiver.
"I can see in the dark," Kiel replied. He moved closer behind her until his chest was a wall of warmth along her back. "Sorry. I didn't mean to deceive you. I just didn't want to freak you out."
Her mind was trying to make sense of a whirlwind of contradictions. The man was dead. There was no logical explanation for him being here with her tonight. No reason whatsoever why his touch was making her body riot with these feelings she was unprepared for. She wanted to reach up and cup her breasts in her hands. More than that, she wanted him to. The images that flashed through her mind terrified her on many levels.
"You're like ice," Kiel murmured against her hair. "Either you're going to need to crank up the heat in this place, or do you have a fireplace? I thought I saw a chimney."
She nodded, not trusting her chattering teeth, and pointed. "On the other side of that chair." His hands left her flesh, replaced by a coolness she instantly regretted. Turning around, she tried to spot his glow when a loud whoosh and a pop echoed in the room, followed by a wave of warmth and the smell of burning wood. "Please tell me you didn't just wave your hands and it appeared."
"Okay, I won't, but don't ask." She heard him move around the room, deliberately making sure his feet made scuffling noises. "Good grief, how many books are in this library, anyway?"
"Two thousand six hundred and eighteen."
A low whistle came from his direction. "And how many of them have you read?" he asked with a touch of humor.
"I've either personally read, or have had read to me, all but those twelve on that shelf underneath the bust of Poe."
"My great-grandfather built this house. He was a fan of horror literature. You'll find several first editions of some of the classics on that shelf over the door."
"The man believed in the supernatural?" Kiel had made his way back around the room and now, from the sound of his voice, stood a little more than arm's length away.
"He, umm, I heard he used to go on jaunts to the cemetery. Why, he never explained. But my great-grandmother was not happy with that particular habit." Another nervous giggle escaped her.
"No. Thank you. I should have dressed a bit warmer. I guess I was overheated after taking my shower."
A minute of silence passed between them. She could tell he was still perusing the titles. Presently she heard him pick up the book she'd left in the chair.
"Which one is this?"
"The Count of Monte Cristo." Of course he wouldn't be able to read the Braille title.
He grunted in reply. "Never read it. In fact, I'm not much of a reader. Or I wasn't." He muttered a four-letter word in disgust.
Impulsively J held out a hand in his direction.
"You didn't come here just to apologize for Sam's behavior today." She wasn't surprised when he took her hand and drew her over to the divan.
"Partly. But also because I realized I still owed you some explanations."
Sitting on the low-slung couch next to him was too much to bear. Quickly she got to her feet and walked over to the fireplace, crossing her arms over her braless breasts and rubbing them as if she needed the warmth. Turning around to face him, she nodded. "Go on. I'm listening."
"A month ago I was working undercover for the DEA. Everything went as planned, but at the last second someone tagged me as a cop. Broke my cover." He gave a deep sigh as he steeled his nerve. "Sam says I disappeared for a week. They had no idea where I'd gone, only that I'd disappeared along with two other suspects. Their initial thought was that I'd been taken hostage. The only thing they were sure of was that both men had been wounded. They found blood splatter on the pavement in a back parking lot where they think the three of us got away in some kind of SUV, gauging from the tire tracks."
"Your blood, too?"
She saw him nod. His aura flickered. "Yeah. That's why they thought I'd been taken hostage."
"They searched for you, right?"
"Yeah. That's what Sam said. A week went by without any word or request for ransom. Sam was frantic. He was my partner, as well as my brother, and I hadn't made any kind of attempt to contact him."
J tilted her head. "I didn't know the department allowed siblings to partner up."
"There's no written rule against it. It was just coincidence. Sam was already a detective here in town when I transferred in. I guess because we both had different last names no one was the wiser when we got paired up. That and the fact that we look nothing alike."
"Nope. I took after Mom. I got her hair and eyes, plus I'm built a little shorter. Stockier. A bit more muscled across the back and shoulders than Sam." A soft snort of laughter surprised her. "Sam took after his dad. I'm six foot, but Sam makes me look like a midget next to him. Anyway, he got the dark hair and dangerous looks that attracts the girls."
"How long have you two been working together?"
"A little over four years. Five, come July. Anyway, I don't remember anything after the raid. Absolutely nothing. What I do remember is waking up in the middle of the park in the dead of night."
"The park? Here in town?"
"Not too far from that freaky statue, yeah."
"You mean the one that feels like a clown on drugs?"
It was deep and honest, and sent more shivers through her. Honest to goodness, her knees were feeling wobbly.
"Come to think of it, that's exactly what that damn thing looks like," he admitted.
J saw him make a movement and realized he was rubbing the back of his neck.
"So you woke up one night in the park. Then what happened?" she urged.
"Sooo, I walked home. That's when I found the police tape on my apartment. And since I couldn't find my key to get inside, I decided the next best thing would be to go over to Sam's."
"Bet he was floored."
"That's putting it mildly." His voice grew very solemn. "Ten minutes later he was screaming in horror."
During his dialog J had found herself slowly inching back toward him. His story was baring his soul. The retelling was also painful for him. She knew without asking that she was the only other person he'd given the truth to. Sitting back down beside him, she reached out to encounter the sleeve of a lightweight shirt. He was dressed in casual clothes.
"Why? What happened?"
"I was filthy. My clothes were hanging off me in rags and covered in blood. I looked like I'd been dragged through hell and back. He wanted to take me to the emergency room but I told him I felt okay. That all the blood and stuff must've come from someone else. Sam went into the kitchen to get me a dishtowel so I could wipe the worst of it away before calling the station to let them know I was back." He took a deep, shuddering breath. "He held out the towel for me to take, and m-my hand just...it just went right through it."
A soft sob shook his shoulders. J reached out to find his hand. It was solid beneath hers.
"It scared you as much as it did him."
She saw his head nod slightly. He wouldn't look at her, but kept his head bowed.
"Then what happened?"
"We sat there staring at each other. After a while I got up and reached for the towel again. I could touch it then, if I concentrated really hard. We sat up the rest of the night and talked. Tried to figure out what to do. Little by little I discovered other things I could do. But what surprised us the most was that if I wanted to, I could look and feel human. Normal. Alive. No one could tell the difference. No one could tell I was...dead."
There was a little hitch to his voice that made her pause. She leaned back slightly in surprise. He must have seen the look on her face and read it correctly.
"J, I swear to God, the last thing we ever expected to hear come out of your mouth was to affirm what we've been trying to deny these past couple of weeks."
"That you were dead?"
"Yeah." It was softer than a sigh.
One minute passed. The grandfather clock in the entryway chimed the quarter hour. The wood in the fireplace hissed. The rough warmth it put out felt surprisingly good on her bare skin.
"So, how did you manage to fool the police and go back to work?"
He chuckled again, but without the humor. "It's a very long and convoluted piece of trickery Sam and I devised. But as long as I'm able to keep myself solidified, I can pass myself off as one of the living."
He shifted slightly before continuing. "When we're off the clock, Sam and I have been trying to find my body. Find out what happened to me after that raid."
Reaching up, he ran the tips of his fingers over her cheek. J closed her eyes, savoring the touch.
"I've overstayed my welcome," he murmured, his lips so close to hers. "It's been a long day for you, and I'm keeping you from resting."
"I'm glad you came," she said hurriedly, yet neither one of them made a move to get up from the divan. J took the advantage to move closer to him. Just enough to where she could lower her forehead and let it rest on a muscled shoulder. The contact filled her with promise. "Thank you again for all you did today to help me. Up in that apartment, I mean."
His fingers came up again and brushed her cheek, trailing down to her jaw. The path he left awakened her senses, making her wish he would go back and touch her again. But they kept moving, caressing her skin until they reached her chin. Then, to her utter surprise and delight, he lifted her chin slightly. His lips came down over hers, warm and totally unexpected. There was no movement on his part. No mashing or attempt to breach the shallow opening between her lips and surge into her mouth. Just a soft pressure, not any firmer than when he had held her hand. Then it was gone.
Wordlessly he got to his feet and headed for the front door. J struggled to stand and tried to follow him. She managed to catch him before he closed the door behind him.
"Goodnight, J. We'll be calling you tomorrow."
"Okay," she replied weakly. She saw his glow fade in the distance. Then, a blink later, it was gone.
Mechanically, she closed the door and locked it. Making her way back into the library, she checked to make sure the screen was up in front of the fireplace before trudging upstairs to her cold and lonely bedroom.
She changed into her cotton pajamas before crawling underneath the sheet and hand-sewn quilt, and listened to the sounds of the old house settling. The creaks and groans she'd grown up hearing were familiar and comforting because she knew there was nothing that could hurt her inside her sanctuary.
Lying there, she followed the path of his fingers with her own until she reached her mouth. His kiss had been the sweetest thing she had ever felt in her life. It had been more sensuous than any other kiss she'd experienced. Why he'd kissed her was a mystery. Maybe it was a thank you for listening to his story without condemnation. Or maybe it was because he wanted so hard to believe he was still among the living, and the simple act of touching and kissing was his way of confirming that.
Or maybe he'd kissed her because she'd so desperately wanted him to. And somehow he had known that.
Rolling over onto her side, J curled up and tried to unwind, but her mind remained in a state of unrest. More, her body continued to remind her of his strength and his warmth. He had touched only her hands, her shoulders, and her face. He had yet to embrace her, and J wondered how deeply it would affect her when he did.
When he did.
She groaned. There was no doubt in her mind that Kiel Stark would take her into his arms. Perhaps kiss her again. Yes, he would kiss her again because she wanted him to.
And then what? And then what, je t'aime? Then what? He's dead. He has no future left. He's living on borrowed time as it is. Once he finds his body, when he finds it, then what will you do?
Groaning again, J buried her face in her pillow where the groan became a muffled sob.
Downstairs the clock struck the hour of ten. Then eleven. She also heard it when it struck midnight and one o'clock. It was two before she finally was able to fall asleep.