Home > Waking the Witch (Women of the Otherworld #11)(3)

Waking the Witch (Women of the Otherworld #11)(3)
Author: Kelley Armstrong

I’d been in love with Adam since I was twelve. I’d grown up secure in the knowledge that while other girls dreamed about their ideal partner, I’d already found mine. I just needed to wait until I was old enough for him to realize I wasn’t just his friends’ ward; I was his soul mate.

Sixteen sounded about right. By the time I actually reached sixteen, though, I realized it was way too young. No decent twenty-seven-year-old should be interested in a kid that age. Eighteen then. When eighteen passed, I told myself the gap was still too wide. Twenty? Nope. Twenty-one. It had to be twenty-one.

We went out for my twenty-first birthday, just the two of us. That wasn’t a sign of anything—we’ve always been good friends. When he asked where I wanted to go, I said the most expensive place in town, just to give him a hard time. Then I bought a knockout dress, got my hair done, even had a manicure. That night Adam would finally realize the smart-ass, irresponsible Savannah was gone for good. I was a woman now.

If he did notice, it didn’t seem to make any difference. I wasn’t his friends’ ward anymore. I was his coworker and pal and that was all I was ever going to be. Take it or leave it. I’d decided to take it. That didn’t mean, though, that my heart didn’t flutter every time I heard his ring tone.

“Let me guess,” he said when I answered. “You’re bored and lonely already.”

“Nope. Got a triple homicide with possible ritualistic overtones already.”

I gave him a quick rundown.

“Jesse’s a good guy,” he said when I finished. “You could use the experience. As the senior employee in Paige and Lucas’s absence, I’m making an executive decision.”

“You like that, don’t you?”

“Anything that gives me the upper hand. I promise not to lord it over you when I get there, though.”

“You’re at a conference. As boring as it might be, you’re stuck.”

“There are just a couple more seminars I want to sit in on, so I’ll leave early and come give you a hand. Jesse’s fine, but better to work with someone you know, right? We make a good team.”

True. But as much as I loved working with Adam, I really wanted this to be my first solo case. As solo as I could make it, anyway. So I said we’d discuss it later. He was fine with that.

“Now, you’re going to stay in Columbus, right? Not commute back and forth.”

“It’s only an hour drive. I have to come back or Paige and Lucas will know something’s up.”

“I’ll say I sent you out to do legwork for me.”

“But the office—”

“—will run just fine without you. Yes, I know you’d rather come home every night, but if you really want field experience, you need to get out in the field and stay there. It’s a small town. You have to meld in, become part of the community. It’ll be good for you, getting out, mingling, trying to fit in ...”

Mingling with humans. Trying to fit into human society. That’s what he meant. Damn.

I reluctantly agreed. He made me promise to call him with an update tomorrow.

three

I took the back roads to Columbus. Highways and motorcycles don’t mix. Neither do motorcycles and the Pacific Northwest. Like Lucas, though, I refuse to yield to the climate. I ride when I can, and have a rainsuit in my saddlebags. I could have taken Paige’s Prius, but the forecast was clear for the next week. So I was zooming along, enjoying the ride, when I passed a service station warning “last gas for ten miles,” which seemed odd, considering Columbus was only a few miles away. Still, I had under half a tank, so I stopped.

As I filled up, a couple of truckers stood outside a rig, the younger one checking me out, the older one checking out my ride.

“Marlon Brando,” the older guy said, nodding at my ride. “That’s the bike he had in The Wild Ones.”

The younger guy’s gaze slithered over me. “So are you a wild one, hon?”

The older one shut him up with a glare, then turned to me. “Where you heading? There isn’t much around out here.”

I doubted these guys were from Columbus, but if they were on this back road, they were probably familiar with the area.

Channeling Paige, I pasted on a big, friendly smile. “Columbus.”

“Why?” the younger guy said. “Nothing there for a girl like you.”

“And not the safest place either,” the older one said. “They’ve had themselves a few murders in the past year. Young women.”

This was easier than I thought. I only had to say, “Seriously?” and I got all the details. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t read in Jesse’s reports, though. Not until they’d finished, and the older man said, “If you ask me, there’s something hinky going on in that town.”

“Hinky?”

“Buddy of mine stopped there last fall, making a delivery. Went in the wrong building and found one of them satanic rituals.”

“In progress?”

“Nah, from the night before, he figured. But it was all there. Pentacles. Black candles. Dead cat. He tore out of there like the devil himself was after him. Won’t stop in that town ever again.”

SATANIC RITUALS. I’D be a lot more excited about that if the ritualistic signs left near those bodies suggested anything like a black mass. Still, it was a start—a hint that something supernatural might be going on in Columbus. Which was good, because from the look of the place, I’d never have guessed it.

The articles on the murders had given me a good image of Columbus. Your typical small town struggling to survive, the kids shipping out to Seattle or Portland as soon as they could. There would be a subdivision for commuters, but mostly you’d see streets of small postwar homes fronted by tidy postage-stamp lawns. The downtown would be a patchwork of basic-service businesses that had been there for three generations.

As I drove into town, though, I joined every local kid in chomping at the bit to be someplace else, anyplace else. Ghost town was too fanciful a term for Columbus, conjuring up visions of porch swings creaking in the breeze and tattered vintage Coke signs flapping. This place was a zombie, rotting before my eyes, dead but still somehow functioning.

The population sign looked as if it had recently been reduced from four digits to three, even that estimate bearing an air of desperate optimism. I drove past three businesses on the outskirts of town—a boarded-up bowling alley, a used-car lot with three mud-mired clunkers, and a darkened gas station.

The residential streets came next, if one can still call them that when there’s little sign of actual residents. Maybe a quarter of the lots bore the kind of tidy postwar homes I’d envisioned. Almost half, though, had For Sale signs, most faded or fallen, all hope abandoned. As for the others, it seemed the homeowners hadn’t even been able to work up the confidence to put their house on the market, the yards overgrown, windows boarded up or broken, as if the residents were resigned to the fact they were stuck here, but resentfully, refusing even to do basic maintenance.

I didn’t need magical powers to cast my mind’s eye out to the other edge of town and see a closed sawmill or factory along the rail tracks. Columbus was the kind of place that wouldn’t have anything to recommend it except good-paying industrial jobs. It was an ugly town in a beautiful state. Portland was close enough for commuting, but so were lots of other, better places, with highway access.

As I rode down Main Street, I started wishing I’d rented a car-something old and rusty, something that would fit in. Normally, I’m all about the attention, but the heads turning my way, the eyes narrowing, the lips tightening, wasn’t the kind of attention I needed if I was about to poke my nose into local murders. Everything about me screamed big city, proof that the world was chugging along in relative ease outside the town limits.

I rode down a quiet secondary road where the only business still operating was a pawnshop. Finally, I spotted the building where Brandi, Ginny, and Claire had died. According to my notes, it used to be an office. I couldn’t tell—it looked like it’d been closed for a decade. It’d probably been the town eyesore for years. Now it fit right in.

I parked in the lot across the road. The only other car there was a BMW. An older model but in AI shape. I wasn’t surprised to see an out-of-state plate on it. Texas.

As I got off my bike, I could see the driver in my mirror, checking me out as he climbed from the car. Even though my back was to him, it was a discreet ogle, almost reluctant. I played to my audience, tugging my helmet free, giving my long dark hair a toss as it fell over my back. Yes, I’m an attention whore. It didn’t hurt that the guy was worth checking out himself.

He looked taller than me, which was always a bonus. A lean build. Wearing a suit that straddled the line between department store and designer. Short dark hair. Chiseled face. Glasses, maybe worn for effect; a guy who wanted to be taken seriously and hoped the glasses would help.

I considered introducing myself, making some wry comment about a fellow out-of-towner. I have no problem approaching guys. I figure if they’re intimidated by a woman who makes the first move, then I’m not the girl for them. Before I made up my mind, though, he headed toward Main Street.

I left my bike secured with a perimeter spell. It sucked as a long-distance alarm, but nothing was better for close range.

In case anyone was watching me, I headed for the pawnshop, then zipped back to the old office under cover of a blur spell. Lucas and Paige always say never to use it in a public place during daylight. While seeing a blur might make someone rub his eyes, I figure it’s safer than seeing a stranger breaking into a crime scene.

Another spell opened the locked front door, and I slipped inside. The place was cool and damp, reeking of mildew. I spell-locked the door behind me and cast a sensing spell. It came back negative. I recited another incantation and a ball of light appeared, hovering in my path.

Yep, that’s a lot of spells in a short period of time, but that’s what life is like for a witch. We can go days without exercising our powers, then we’ll encounter a situation—usually involving the words threat and danger—and it’s a regular paranormal power fest.

With the light ball illuminating my way, I searched for the basement stairs, weaving past the occasional piece of office furniture that people deemed too crappy to steal. I tried to picture what had happened here, with Ginny and Brandi and then Claire. Lucas would say trying to visualize what happened to a victim was yet another way to leap to unwarranted conclusions, and Paige would agree.

But they aren’t me, and imagining the crime helps me see the victim as a person, not just a problem to be solved. For Paige and Lucas, empathy is never a problem—they’re bursting with it. Me? Not so much.

The articles hadn’t speculated whether the women had died here, but having seen the blood pools under them I was going to take the leap and say yes.

I tried to imagine what might draw me here. For Ginny and Brandi, the possibilities were endless—anything from a drug deal to a party to a hookup. If they were willing to trade a bl*w j*b for a hit, this would be a good place to do it.

The problem was Claire Kennedy. A college student on summer break, according to the paper. Honors student. Arts major. Wrote for the college paper. Quiet and straitlaced was the impression I got from the account. Looking around, I couldn’t imagine anything that would bring me to this place—and straitlaced has never been an adjective applied to me. So what brought Claire?

That led to the bigger question. What brought a girl like Claire to Columbus at all? According to the article, she’d been here two weeks, coming right after her finals. Short of two broken legs, nothing would keep me here that long. Hell, with two broken legs I’d drag myself the twenty miles to the highway and hitch a ride.

I took out the crime-scene photos. Unlike the other two, Claire wasn’t lying in her own blood. So shot and moved seemed a reasonable assumption for her. If she’d been killed elsewhere in the building, there would be blood trace—I couldn’t imagine the owner had sprung for much in the way of cleaning afterward. I could search, but the cops would have already done that. I’d get the details from them.

When I finally located the basement door, I cast the sensing spell again. There was no sign the cops were still securing the scene. Jesse said they’d been here only yesterday, though.

My spell did detect small presences, but that was to be expected in a rat hotel like this. I searched for the big “ping” that said human and ignored the rest.

At the bottom of the stairs, I realized that finding the basement didn’t mean finding the crime scene. I should have stopped at the police station first to let them know I was in town, so I could have sweet-talked some cop into telling me exactly where in this basement the bodies had been found.

I took out the photos. Concrete floor. Concrete wall. Yeah, that narrowed it down.

I started walking, the light ball illuminating the photos as I compared them to my surroundings, as if I were a TV detective, able to identify a speck of Flora whateveris on the photo and match it to one on the floor. I scanned the floor, searching for ... oh, I don’t know, matching dirt patterns? Then I caught sight of a torn piece of yellow plastic taped to a pillar.

“Or you could just look for crime-scene tape, stupid.”

As I spoke, something scuttled to my left. I wheeled, hands poised to launch an energy bolt. I peered into the darkness, but couldn’t see very far. I listened for the chattering of rats. Instead, I heard breathing.

I took a step. The breathing stopped. A long pause, then a gasp, like he couldn’t hold his breath anymore. I murmured the sensing spell under my breath. It agreed something was there, but not a human-sized something.

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