The media has a nickname for Marnie Baranuik, though she’d rather they didn’t; they call her the Great White Shark, a rare dual-talented forensic psychic. Twice-Touched by the Blue Sense--which gives her the ability to feel the emotions of others, and read impressions left behind on objects--Marnie also has a doctorate in preternatural biology and a working knowledge of the dark arts. She is considered without peer in the psychic community.
Then her first big FBI case ended with a bullet in one shoulder and a chip on the other, a queasy heart and a serial killer in the wind, leaving her a public flop and a private wreck. When the FBI’s preternatural crimes unit tracks her down at a remote mountain lodge for her insight on a local case, her quiet retirement is promptly besieged by a stab-happy starlet, a rampaging ghoul, and a vampire-hunting jackass in tight Wranglers. Marnie figures the only real mystery is which one will kill her first.
Too mean to die young, backed up by friends in cold places, and running with a mouth as demure as a cannon’s blast, Marnie Baranuik is about to discover that there’s no such thing as quitting time when you’re Touched.
The sheriff of Lambert County had once been a Denver detective working homicide, and it showed in the shrewd tilt of his gaze. He moved like a blank-faced panther across the hospital room, sinuous and agile, oddly predatory for one of the good guys. If I hadn’t checked his pupils for a primal hint of flash I’d have thought him a lycanthrope in human form, but he was one hundred percent man; werekin can’t hide the gleam of lycanthropy.
The cop had perfect posture, loose at the joints, a confident bearing that warned other males his body was well-tuned, a trained weapon he knew how to use. I assumed he did a lot of martial arts in whatever spare time a small town sheriff might be afforded. He was young for his office, thirty-five at most, a true red-head, pale skinned with a smattering of freckles, narrow chin on a boy-next-door face, with swampy green eyes that were an interesting blend of sympathetic and skeptical: skeptithetic. If he smiled, I suspected he’d be handsome, though I was pretty sure I wasn’t on his Smile-At list just yet. Probably, he thought I was a troublemaker. Maybe he was right. I sipped ice water through a bendy straw and watched him pull up a stool beside the cranked-up hospital bed.
“Marnie Baranuik,” he began, rolling one shoulder. A shoulder holster creaked under the whisper of his heavy nylon jacket. The zipper was open in case he had to shoot me. Verrrry comforting. “I’m Sheriff Hood. Do you know why I’m here?”
“I’m assuming someone called you about my stabbing,” I said between sips. “Did you happen to see two miserable-looking FBI agents out in the hallway? One nerdy beanpole with classic male pattern baldness, the other with big shoulders and a real jerk face?”
He looked at me thoughtfully for a beat before shaking his head.
“No, ma’am, I didn’t. And yes, I’m here about the incident at the Ten Springs Motor Inn.”
“Incident?” I asked, hearing blame.
“Rodney, the night clerk at the Inn, told me it was a homicide. Bit of a miscommunication.” A brief apologetic smile flickered across his mouth. I was right: Hubba hubba ooh-lala. “I’ve since learned that you have a pulse.”
He scooted the rubber-footed stool closer and propped his boots on the low rungs, letting his knees fall slightly apart. One of those knees started bouncing. He sucked on something minty, which clicked against the inside of his teeth, and I thought, nicotine fit. I’ve seen my share of them. The left cuff of his pants didn’t sit exactly right: ankle holster for a back up gun. I’ve seen my share of those, too.
“You work for Gold-Drake & Cross out of Portland,” he began. “How come you’re living in my corner of Colorado?”
“I quit. I didn’t want to work with a bunch of weirdoes who actually believe in the supernatural.” Who, plain ole Mundane Me? I tried my winning-est smile. “I’m just a regular gal.”
Hood gave me his cop face, shuttered. The knee-bouncing stilled. “In 2006, you wrote your dissertation on the comparison of black plague and crypt plague in Venice, 1630-1631, the rise of Yersinia sanguinaria at the lazarettos, and true and false accusations of vampirism. In 2008 you did a series of training seminars for the FBI and various state law enforcement agencies on preternatural crime prevention and revenant mental health crisis management.” His lips hinted at a smile again. “Revenant?”
My shoulders crept up a notch. “It’s the term they prefer.”
“You mean vampires,” he clarified. “What sort of doctorate do you hold, exactly?”
I gave my best scowl. “Don’t profile me, sheriff. It’s rude, and I’m sure your mother raised you better.”
“She did,” he said pleasantly, like he had all the time in the world to play games with me. I certainly wasn’t going anywhere, connected to tubes and beeping machinery, and unable to stand up on my own.
“I know damn well what I wrote my dissertation on. How much of my life did you research?”
“Got a hefty file. Looks like I’m in for a night of heavy reading. How about you save me some time, tell me what’s not in there?”
“You’re not going to write anything down?” I asked. “For your incident report?”
“You haven’t really told me anything yet.” The smile reappeared and I was rewarded this time with a hint of straight white teeth. My brain melted like butter left on a hot stovetop.
“Well, I will. I intend to. Tell you, I mean. Every thing of the truth.” What the hell am I even talking about? “You’re going to want this on paper.”
“Maybe so,” he mused, scratching the back of his neck. “Since you’re about to tell me ‘every thing of the truth’.”
He fished around for a notebook in his pocket that looked like it had never been used, clicked a brand new pen. Not a lot of serious crime in Lambert County.
I shifted in the pillows propping me slightly upright, and tried not to think of staples clawing flesh together and sutures keeping skin in a taut line. Post-surgery painkillers kept the pain at a safe distance, but I could almost hear it pacing like an impatient Attila the Hun considering the distant walls of Constantinople.
“One huge waste of your time, coming right up,” I warned him, taking a deep cleansing breath. “My name is Marnie-Jean because my mother likes hyphenated names and the old cologne Jean Nate. I enjoy setting fires in a woodstove. Conversely, I’m afraid of BBQ grills; I’m sure the propane tank is going to explode and take my face right off. I’m also afraid of home invasions, clowns, Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy. I mean, what does she use those teeth for, anyway? It’s disturbing, when you think about it.”
Hood made no notes. I guess I hadn’t said anything good yet. When I launched into the layman’s explanation of my psychic Talents and my former position at GD&C, Hood’s pen moved but his eyes never left my face. Neat trick. He searched my eyes, his own face revealing nothing, and then surprised me with a thoughtful question.
“If you know stuff just by touching things, doesn’t that get a little…busy in your head?”
Relief—validation perhaps—flooded me; for a second I thought I might embarrass myself by welling-up. I showed him my bare hands. “Usually I wear gloves all day, inside and out, to block influxes of information. Leather works best.”
“We didn’t find any gloves at the scene.” So he’d been to the scene, check. I wondered if Harry’s motorcycle was in evidence also. Boy, would he be ticked.
“Maybe she took them?” Like she took my hair. And very nearly my life. “I took them off. They were on the floor beside the bed last I saw.” Or did Harry take them? I had a vague feeling he might have, but it all seemed foggy.
“Can’t you “tell” where they are?” He wiggled his fingers mysteriously.
I shrugged. “I might be able to link to and trace my own possessions. I’ve never tried it. What I can’t do is pull visions out of thin air. That’s a clairvoyant. I have to touch something, or feel someone’s changes in emotions. I can tell when I’m being lied-to, ninety-nine percent of the time. She fooled me. No, that’s not entirely true: I knew she was pissed off. I misread the depth of her hatred, and I believed she had information, and that she was truly in trouble. Being fooled by a successful liar bothers me like I can’t even describe. No one should be able to fool me.”
Hood’s lips twitched. “Ever thought of becoming a cop?”
“Criminals give me the wobbly-knees.” I shook my head. “I do like the law. The law is one of the few things that make me feel stable. Boundaries are good when the rest of you feels ready to fly apart.”
Hood gave another unexpectedly understanding nod, and I tried to probe at his aura and see if he was faking the sympathy. I couldn’t feel him. Lord and Lady, what the hell had I done to myself? Meanwhile he was watching expectantly, pen poised.
“Thanks to my partner, I’ve developed a strong sense of smell. I bet you didn’t know that tulips have what revenants call an under-scent. It’s mild, kind of citrusy. I also like over-cooked roast beef, sun-warmed Key limes and Canadians.”
“Canadians in general, or just the way they smell?”
“Canadians smell fantastic,” I deadpanned. Hood half-smiled; I don’t think he wanted to like me but I was winning him over. “I drink more espresso than is healthy and will undoubtedly die, Balzac-like, of caffeine poisoning. I cannot say no to a cookie. Sometimes when I’m alone I sing old Monty Python songs in the bath. And at the moment, I have titanium staples where my belly button used to be.” I shook my head. “But you don’t need to know any of this. You don’t need to know about my irregular periods or my crush on Wil Wheaton. So why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for?”
“You were injured in Buffalo on your first official FBI case.” He watched me without blinking. “Gun shot wounds. The reports said you were shot by a vampire serial killer named Jeremiah Prost while you were working as a “preternatural forensic consultant” for the PCU. How did he escape?”
“Everyone’s got theories on my failure. Why ask me?”
“Maybe I like the sound of your voice. Besides, I didn’t say it was your failure; you were one of many on that team, correct?”
My shoulders fell. I told him a concise version of what happened, in Buffalo and at the Ten Springs Motor Inn, including the FBI but leaving out the sex and the vomit. Then I added the vomit, because I was pretty sure he’d seen that at the scene. I left Batten’s name out of it, and implied that Danika was resentful of me but left it at professional jealousy. I hoped he bought it.
He didn’t appear to buy a single word of it.
“Let’s see if I wrote this down correctly,” Hood said. The smile was gone and I didn’t like his tone anymore, but I guess that was fair; probably he didn’t like my story much. “You’re a witch. And a psychic.”
“Specifically, an ex-forensic psychometrist with secondary clairempathy who used to work for Gold-Drake & Cross. Third Floor, retrocognition.”
He clarified: “And you live with a vampire.”
“A revenant. There’s no such thing as a human psychic who isn’t DaySitting an immortal. The source of the Blue Sense is the revenant. You wield psi through the revenant. That’s the only way it works. Where have you been living?”
“In my own quiet corner of this great state,” he replied, and I picked up the undertone: where there are no monsters. I got a brief flash of understanding; Hood had left Denver for some small town serenity, and he wasn’t too impressed that I was slamming it from wall to wall. “So this, uh, revenant buddy of yours, he’s four hundred-years-old?”
“Approximately. You don’t ask an immortal how old he is. It’s bad form, and could get you backhanded through a wall.”
He exhaled slowly through his nostrils, and I thought ginger dragon. I bet he wished he’d sent a deputy to answer this call. “At one thirty P.M. you were called by another psychic named Danika Sherlock.” He tapped his pen. “As in Sherlock Holmes?”
“I didn’t pick the crazy twat’s name.” I sighed. “And coming from a man named Robin Hood, I should think you’d understand: sometimes bad names just fucking happen.”
A flinch around his eyes told me that even if I was wrong, his parents had done him no favors; he’d heard it ten thousand times. “I didn’t tell you my first name,” he said. “And Rob’s short for Robert.”
I offered him my open hand, as though for a handshake. He hesitated only for a second before laying his own huge paw in my small one. The skin between our palms crawled instantaneously as the spark of psi awoke to my command.
“Which is a partial lie,” I announced flatly. “Your name was Robin. Your father had a closeted homoerotic crush on Errol Flynn, though it was no secret to your immediate family. It made you feel squinky, so you legally changed your name to Robert in 1997. April.” I smiled at him. “A Tuesday. It was raining. And while I just made you feel violated right down to your toenails, you will successfully not show it on your face.”
A thoroughbred version of spooked excitement thundered through him. I broke contact, laid my hands in my lap, and continued, “Look, I’m the stab-ee here, not the stabber. Why are you giving me a hard time?”
“I’m not trying to give you a hard time, Mrs.—”
“Miss.” Why make that correction?
“You arrived at the Ten Springs Motor Inn at,” he consulted his notes, unnecessarily, possibly to humour me. “Approximately 2 pm. At which point she invited you into Room 4 and stabbed you in the back, causing you to drop your coffee.”
“And now she owes me two bucks.”
“You were both helping the FBI work on a murder case in Lower Downtown? Why are the FBI involved?”
“It’s a suspected preternatural crime, and the PCU was called in from Quantico. I only looked at a few pictures. She was assisting SSA Gary Chapel and Special Agent Mark Batten, who may or may not show up here any minute.”
I didn’t know whether they would or not. Last time I’d been injured, Chapel came every other day until my release; Batten hadn’t shown. Considering this time it was his fiancée who stabbed me, and she was pissed because of his cock’s activities, I thought the least he could do is put in a few minutes at my bedside. Did Hallmark make a “sorry my Love Muffin stabbed you repeatedly until she thought you were dead” card? On second thought, maybe I didn’t want to see him.
I realized that Sheriff Hood was reading the whole story as it crossed my face.
“Ok, fine! I nailed her man, OK?” I threw my hands up. “I’m a disgrace to society! Are you writing this down, word for word? Bowlegged slut can’t keep her knees together. Go ahead. Write it!”
He leaned back slightly, letting surprise flood his face. Big shoulders shook under taupe nylon; I realized he was trying not to laugh. He didn’t write a word. He just bounced his knee some more and gave me space to ramble.
“So she found out, and decided I was the worst person on Earth. I get that, I do. Hate my guts, fine, but don’t stab them.”
He waited, face gone cop-blank again.
“In my defense, I had no idea that Agent Jerkface was engaged,” I pointed out. “He never bothered to tell me, and I can’t read him psychically. So how is that my fault?”
“Agent Jerkface is …”
“Ah, fuck,” I straw-stirred the ice in angry circles in my big plastic cup. “Agent Batten. I know it’s wrong. We worked together. Briefly. We don’t even like each other. I’m not his type. Hel-lo! Do I look like a Barbie doll?” I sulked, stabbed at the ice chips with my bendy straw. He was staring curiously at my forehead. I wondered what the hell he was looking at. “I don’t even know why it happened. We were under a lot of stress, and he didn’t like needing to use my Talents and I didn’t like his attitude—which, by the way, is as close to asshole as you can get without actually being a sphincter—and we were stuck in a car on stake-outs for hours, then stuck in a cramped motel room in bloody Cheektowaga for days, overtired, keyed up, always fighting …” I drifted off helplessly.
I looked up to see if he got what I meant. The keen glint in his eyes said he knew exactly how it must have happened; he nodded almost imperceptibly.
“So anyways, about Room 4: I faked dead with a mimicry spell called necromimesis. When psychobeast left, I called 911. Harry showed first, and drove me to the hospital. We should have stayed, but I was afraid of the cops getting the wrong idea about the revenant and the blood if I passed out unable to explain. Besides, Harry drives much faster than an ambulance.”
“Go back to the faking dead part?”
“Bit of witchcraft involved. I’m not really sure how I pulled it off. Necromimesis is sort of out of my league.”
He looked at me doubtfully. “Could you do it right now, show me?”
“No,” I said truthfully. “I couldn’t. I don’t have any of the stuff …”
Hood took a clear plastic evidence baggy out of his inside jacket pocket, dangling it. In it was my onyx. “This yours, then?”
“Yes. Still, even with that, the bark and herbs are just symbolic objects for focus. The kind of energy output required for that level of spell is only drummed up by someone like me during periods of extreme stress. Energy, focus, belief, will, those are the real ingredients. This level of magic leaves a taint on your aura. I wouldn’t attempt it again, it’s not exactly clean.”
Hardly a proud moment for a white witch, but death wasn’t all black. It was the very definition of middle ground, the grey area, limbo, death being neither good nor evil. I’d only interrupted my own life, and I didn’t think one emergency spell was crossing over to “official dabbling”.
There was a soft knock at the door and we both turned our attention to Agent Chapel’s long-jawed Great Dane face peering in.
“Pardon me, sheriff. We’ll just wait in the hall until you’re done.”
We? My waffling heart flowed from boiling to frigid, flailed about like it was attempting a drunken River Dance under my ribcage, and then flushed back to hot, unable to decide between avid and avoidant. Probably my heart had finally lost its frigging mind. I no longer wanted to see Mark Batten walk through that door. There was a distinct chance that I was going to get blamed for this whole mess. It wasn’t my fault, but since when did that matter?
“I’m about finished here.” Hood stood, pushing the stool away with the back of his thick legs.
When Chapel disappeared, Hood scratched at the back of his neck with the end of his pen, his eyes playing down the length of the sheet over my legs. I picked up subtle flickers of his curiosity. It was wildly inappropriate, but he didn’t seem aware he was doing it so I let it go.
He said, “Have you ever taken any self-defense classes?”
“No, but I should,” I acknowledged. “Why do you ask?”
“Top of mind when I see an attack like this. Everyone should have at least some idea of how to fend an attacker off. I’m sort of biased,” he said, nodding. “I teach police defensive tactics.”
“Hence the hot bod,” came out of my mouth before I even knew I was going to say it. Horrified, I stuck my straw in my mouth and pretended great interest in my ice water so I didn’t have to meet his eyes.
He was quiet for a moment, assessing. “So when you played dead on the floor, you’re saying you somehow slowed your heartbeat and held your breath? Autogenic training, some Zen thing?”
“That’s not at all what I said,” I looked up into his perfectly human eyes. We stared each other down for a minute, the witch and the skeptic.
“Just clarifying,” he said amiably. The smile made another appearance, at which point I could have sworn I melted and slid into a puddle of mush beside the bed; it lingered lightly on his lips, like he wasn’t sure whether to call a shrink for me, or himself. He made to leave.
“And …” His boots scuffed the floor as he stopped suddenly. “When you called your revenant, did you do it with …” He made a wand-motion in the air that he must have seen Mickey Mouse make in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “Mystical abilities?”
“No,” I said sourly. “I called his cell phone.”
“iPhone,” I sighed.
He nodded as though this made perfect sense, stroked his chin. “I’d like to speak to this Lord Dreppenstedt. Have him come into my little station in Ten Springs and make a statement. Or I could drop by your place?”
“Number one, on Shaw’s Fist. It’s the last cabin in the row, or the first, if you’re one of those annoying glass-half-full types. It would be better to come after dark.”
“After dark,” he repeated. “Because your buddy’s a real live vampire, right?”
“Revenant,” I reminded. “And I wouldn’t call him live, exactly.”
Hood paused in the doorway, tucking his notebook away inside his jacket. “Are you actually bowlegged?”
“No, but it sounded good at the time,” I said miserably, sinking back into my pillows.
“Well, for what it’s worth,” he started, and then apparently thought better of it. He had that charming redhead habit of turning helplessly pink when he was embarrassed and a blush crept up his throat. He smiled it away, full-beam this time; it was dizzying how gorgeous it made him. “I’ll check back with you if I have any further questions.”
I found my voice by some miracle. “You do that, sheriff.”
AJ Aalto is the author of Touched, first in the paranormal mystery series The Marnie Baranuik Files. Aalto is an unrepentant liar and a writer of blathering nonsense offset by factual gore. When not working on her novels, you can find her singing old Monty Python songs in the shower, eavesdropping on perfect strangers, stalking her eye doctor, or failing at one of her many fruitless hobbies. Generally a fan of anyone with a passion for the ridiculous, she has a particular weak spot for smug pseudo-intellectuals and narcissistic jerks; readers will find her work littered with dark, imperfect creatures, flawed monsters and oodles of snark. AJ cannot say no to a Snickers bar, and has been known to swallow her gum.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Happy Reading Everyone :)