The front lawn seemed oddly serene in the midst of all the bustle. Only a few uniformed police officers stood outside, mostly to keep the public back. None of the neighbors tried to step onto the lawn, as though to get to close might make the murder rub off on them.
“Ma’am?” one of the men nearby asked, brows crinkled.
“As you were,” she snapped. She strode past and up the steps, her boots banging like hollow drums.
The door handle felt hot and her elbow went numb. She hissed and pulled her hand back. Idiot! Where was her brain, dammit? Don’t touch the door of a murder scene with bare skin; psychic echoes left behind still had strength especially this close it. She rubbed her hands on her arms and shouldered the door open.
The entryway had faded brown carpeting covered by a rubber mat that stretch from the front door all the way down the hall. Immediately to the left stood a spindly-legged console table with recent mail, a basket with keys, and a well-cared-for wallet of brown leather. An EMT pushed passed her with a murmured apology and headed toward the back of the house. She could see the two wide-bodied men dressed in identical uniforms, ‘Coroner’ on the back in white letters like a protective emblem.
She shook herself and looked to the right.
The living room stretched all the way to the right exterior wall, windows in the front, back, and even a small one on the back corner, to her left, by a small reading chair. Her boot thudded on the strip of hardwood floor and then she stepped onto a rug. The minute she stepped down on it, she knew some living hand made it, cared for every braid and stitch. As the magic whispered up her body and made her hair tingle, she knew.
The deceased had been a witch.
She walked forward, one hand out and palm down, parallel to the floor. She walked the entire perimeter, all the way to that small window, and stopped. The wards gleamed in her mind’s eye, undisturbed in this room.
“Anything?” Sandillo’s voice, when it came from behind her, didn’t startle her so much as draw her back into her body.
“The wards are undisturbed.”
“What?” Jon demanded, sounding confused.
“How?” Sandillo asked. “The killer had to come in somehow.”
“The back door,” she responded. “This room is still warded.” She circled to the right, hand still out. A wave of cold flowed into her and she froze. “Stop!”
“Get back, Taylor. Let her work.” Sandillo used that ‘tone’ he got, the one that intimidated men twice his size.
Belinda glanced over and saw Jon step back into the hall, perplexed. “What are you talking about?”
“Just watch,” Sandillo advised. “She doesn’t do this often, but she’s never been wrong.”
“The rug was made by someone of power,” she told them, eyes on the walls. “There are wards in this room. It’s not where he does his circles, but…” She trailed off. “There’s something here…”
“Could be,” she hedged. “Gran would know. She lets solitaries practice here, sometimes, and it would explain why there’s not more warding, more people.”
“What about the housekeeper?” Sandillo cleared his throat. “Is she a practitioner?”
Belinda wanted to laugh. Sandillo, from another time and place, knew those who practiced Santeria. To this day, he refused to use the word ‘witch,’ and rarely the word ‘Wiccan.’ She didn’t bother to correct him. “It’s possible. There’s only male energy here, though. I’d check the kitchen.”
“That’s where the body is,” Jon put in.
Her stomach clenched. The wards tightened around her, as though they could understand his words. She stopped, dizzy.
“Belinda?” Sandillo asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she answered. She straightened with some effort. “These wards are strong.”
“Not strong enough,” Jon muttered darkly.
“You don’t understand.” She swallowed around suddenly dry mouth. “They’re very strong. They’re not meant to keep out a physical threat. They’re meant to keep out psychic intrusion. The dagger is an artifact, a verifiable artifact of magical power. This man knew that, and these wards… I think these wards somehow know he’s dead.”
“That’s impossible! There’s a real, flesh-and-blood body in that other room, Belinda. Fairies didn’t kill him. The burglar did!” Jon’s face flushed.
“Okay, then you tell me why the two of you are standing on the wood and not the rug, Sergeant Taylor!” She advanced on him. “And since you’re such an expert on the unseen, explain to me how this room lay undisturbed when he’s clearly got a gun in this drawer!” She yanked the top drawer of the china cabinet by the door open to reveal the forty-five. “Now. Since you don’t have answers to those very reasonable questions, get the hell out of my way and let me do my job!” She pushed passed him into the hallway and strode to the kitchen.
“Belinda!” Jon protested.
She ignored him and walked through the door at the end of the hall. She stopped on the threshold and then had to step out of the door when another investigator needed entrance to dust for more prints.
Her mind refused to understand what she stared at. The immaculate white kitchen, with its white-painted walls and white tile around the sink, stood as though caught in the middle of a sentence and just interrupted, about to resume at any moment. The crimson splashes decorating the fridge seemed almost pretty, a bright and cheerful red in contrast to the plain fixtures. The body lay, limbs every-which-way, under a sheet. As she caught sight of it, a man from the coroner’s office walked by with a body bag and she heard the gurney approach down the hall.
She stepped into the alcove that led to the back door, a well-stocked pantry on her left. Neatly-arranged canned goods lined the shelves, as well as two fresh loaves of bread and various supplies for baking more. Behind her, aside from the body, the kitchen had been demolished. She didn’t turn around to look; the image seemed burned into her retinas like a strobe light. Broken dishes lined the floor all around the table, at least two plates, mugs, silverware, and a decanter of what had probably been orange juice. Fresh squeezed, by the smell of it. Shards of a Louisville Slugger lay on the floor, shattered by the force of a blow. Or possibly several blows.
She made it out the back door without having to vomit, and walked all the way into the middle of the back yard. Deep breaths steadied her. She squatted down in the grass and ran her fingers through it. She’d forgotten how bad it felt to be around the violently dead. The death energies swirled around that kitchen like debris in a toilet bowl.
“It takes a while to get used to. Some never do.” Jon held a wet-nap down for her. “This will help. Clear your nose.”
She tore the packet open and inhaled the unpleasant antiseptic odor deep into her lungs. It overrode the other scents and she felt herself steady a little. “I should have slept first, before coming here.” She wiped both hands with the damp cloth and it felt good, soothed her nerves.
“Because of dreams?”
“No. Because my shields are shot to hell.” She eased to her feet. “That murderer is dangerous, Jon. Agitated and violent.”
“You say that like we haven’t already seen their work.”
His warm chocolate gaze filled her awareness and she blinked it away before she violated his privacy again. “We haven’t.” She turned back to the house to study its backside. Out here, the paint on the exterior gleamed a soft grey that seemed to recede from view, a subtle color that didn’t clash with the trees. A breeze blew the scent of the lake toward her and she inhaled.
“There are two other sites, Belinda,” Jon told her in a tone that made it clear he thought she should have remembered that.
“It’s not the same person . That’s what I’m telling you.” She waved her hand at the house. “Whoever killed that man isn’t the same burglar as the other two crime scenes. They were methodical, surgically precise. This… This is a goddamn blood bath, is what it is. Totally enraged… There’s a mess everywhere. Broken china, even a chair. Jon, whoever did this isn’t the same person!”
He shook his head. “I’ll go so far as to grant that you may be able to see things other people can’t. But knowledge of the killer? What, did a little fairy tell you that too?”
She stared at him, hands balled into fists. She briefly considered ‘borrowing’ more of her brother’s strength to wipe that sanctimonious expression off the big man’s face, but it wasn’t worth it. “Get a ride home with one of the beat cops or Sandillo. I’m done.” She walked past him without even slapping him, for which she ought to get a prize.
“Belinda. Belinda!” He started after her and then she heard one of the men from inside call to him.
She could feel his frustration like a physical pressure. She couldn’t blame him; this case would frustrate a saint. Too many things didn’t add up. But too much had happened for her to care. Her phone buzzed and she yanked it out of a pocket.
“Bee, what’s wrong? I can –”
She snapped it closed on her brother’s sentence, and then thumbed the ‘off’ button. She made it all the way to her car before Sandillo caught up to her. Had she been a few seconds quicker, he’d never have made it at all.
“Belinda.” His voice wasn’t loud, but it carried.
She blew out her breath but didn’t turn. “What, Lieutenant?”
He walked up and leaned on the car, next to her, close but not touching. “Where are you going?”
“Home. I need sleep. I haven’t slept since yesterday.” And you dragged me out here for this fucking murder and I don’t want to be here anymore! She managed to not say that part out loud.
“Fine. I’ll cover for you with Taylor. Just be sure you know what you’re doing.”
She looked at him. “What do you mean?”
His dark brown eyes seemed unusually thoughtful. “Just be careful. I don’t want to have to explain to your grandmother how I got you killed on an assignment.”
She felt a chill and remembered the premonition she’d had, when she first met Jon. She laughed shakily. “You develop the Sight and didn’t tell me?”
He leaned closer and opened her car door. “Just be careful.”
She got in and he closed the door behind her, and watched as she drove away.
Try as she might, she couldn’t just shake off his concern as mere nerves. She turned the car toward home and prayed nothing else cropped up to interfere. As she pulled into the line of cars going down the road, she felt eyes on her. But when she looked back, she saw nothing.
Here’s hoping it really was nothing. She shivered and turned onto the main drag.