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After Moonrise, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  She glanced down at her clasped hands and made a visible effort to relax them. Then she looked back at him. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m not comfortable with this.”

  “This?” No, hell, no. He wasn’t going to make it any easier for her. Not this morning. Not when it felt like something was trying to crawl under his skin. He was fucking sick and tired of dealing with people who hired psychics from After Moonrise, but acted as if they’d find it more desirable to work side by side with someone who was unclogging their backed-up septic tank—by hand.

  “Death.” She said the word so softly Raef almost didn’t hear her.

  He blinked in surprise. So, it wasn’t the psychic part that had her acting like an ice queen—it was the dead part. That was easier for him to understand. Death, specifically murder, was his job. But that didn’t mean he liked it, either.

  “Death is rarely a comfortable subject.” He paused and, realizing there was a distinct possibility he had come off like a prick, attempted to look understanding. “All right, Mrs. Wilcox, how about we start over. You do your best to relax, and I’ll do my best to help you.”

  Her smile was tight-lipped, but at least it was a smile. “That sounds reasonable, Mr. Raef.”

  “So, you’re here because of a death.”

  “Yes. I am also here because I don’t have anywhere else left to go,” she said.

  He’d definitely heard that before, and it didn’t make him feel all warm and cuddly and saviorlike, as it would have made some of After Moonrise’s other psychics like Claire or Ami or even Stephen feel. Which made sense. They could sometimes save people. Raef only dealt with the aftermath of violence and murder. There was no damn salvation there.

  “Then let’s get to it, Mrs. Wilcox.” He knew he sounded gruff, intimidating even. He meant to. It usually made things move faster.

  “My daughter Lauren needs your help. She’s why I’m here.”

  “Lauren was murdered?” Raef dropped the gruffness from his voice. Now he simply sounded clinical and detached, as if he was a lab technician discussing ways to deal with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He picked up his pen, wrote and underlined Lauren at the top of a fresh legal pad, and then glanced back at Mrs. Wilcox, waiting semipatiently for the rest of the story.

  She pressed her lips together into a tight line, clearly trying to hold in words too painful to speak. Then she drew a deep breath. “No, Lauren was not murdered. She is alive, but she’s not whole anymore. She’s only partially here. I need your help to restore her spirit.”

  “Mrs. Wilcox, I think there has been a mistake made in scheduling. It sounds to me like you need to meet with another member of the After Moonrise team—one of our shamans who specialize in shattered souls. My powers only manifest if there is a murder involved.” He started to lift the phone to buzz Preston, but her next words made him hesitate.

  “My daughter was murdered.”

  “Mrs. Wilcox, you just said that Lauren is alive.”

  “Lauren is alive. It’s her twin, Aubrey, who was murdered.”

  Raef put down the phone. “One twin was murdered, and the other’s alive?”

  “If you can call it that.” Her face was pale, her expression strained, but she was keeping herself from crying.

  Despite his bad mood his interest stirred. A living twin and a murdered twin? He’d never encountered a murder case like that before.

  “Mr. Raef, the situation is that one of my daughters was murdered three months ago. Since then my other daughter has become only a shell of herself. Lauren is haunted by Aubrey.”

  Raef nodded. “It happens fairly often. When two people are very close—siblings, husband and wife, parent and child—and one of them dies or is murdered, the deceased’s spirit lingers.”

  “Yes, I know,” she said impatiently. “Especially when the murder is unsolved.”

  Raef sat up straighter. This was more like it. “Then you have come to the right psychic. I’ll need to be taken to the murder scene, and will also need to speak with Lauren. If her twin is haunting her, then I can probably make direct contact with Aubrey through Lauren and piece together what happened. Once the murder is solved, Aubrey should be able to rest peacefully.” He rubbed his forehead, wishing the uncomfortable feeling of yearning would get the hell out from under his skin. He was not that nine-year-old kid anymore. He was tough, competent, and he knew how to handle his shit.

  “Yes, peace. That’s what I’m here to find. For both of my girls.”

  “I’m going to try to help you, Mrs. Wilcox. You said Aubrey was killed three months ago? And the murder hasn’t been solved yet? It’s unusual that the forensic psychic wasn’t able to close this file.”

  Her blue eyes iced over and the sadness that had been shadowing them was frozen out. “Is solving my daughter’s murder what you mean by closing this file?”

  Damn! He’d actually said that aloud. What the hell was wrong with him? He might not have the graveside manner of someone like touchy-feely Stephen, but Raef usually showed more tact than offhandedly insulting an already upset client.

  “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry that my wording seemed callous. I assure you that I am cognizant of, and sorry for, your loss.”

  She continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “The reason Aubrey’s file wasn’t closed is because the police psychic couldn’t communicate with my daughter about the murder. Either one of them.”

  Raef frowned. “That’s highly unusual, Mrs. Wilcox. Did you give legal permission for your daughter’s spirit to be questioned?”

  “Of course,” she snapped. “But it’s not that simple with Aubrey and Lauren. It never has been.”

  “I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t understand what—”

  Her imperiously raised hand cut him off. “Perhaps it would be easier if I showed you.” Without waiting for Raef’s response or permission, she stood and walked quickly to the office door. Opening it she said, “You can come in now, Lauren.”

  The woman who entered his office looked like a younger version of her mother—a leggy, twentysomething blonde with waves of platinum hair so light it was almost white. Her body was lusher than her mother’s, who had the appearance of too many carb-free years and maintenance liposuction. Lauren, on the other hand, looked like she might enjoy a burger and a beer once in a while. Scratch that—the expensive silk knit sweater and the designer slacks and shoes said she might enjoy a fillet, a fancied-up potato and some expensive red wine once in a while.

  His gaze traveled from her curvy body to her gray-blue eyes, and he felt his own narrow in response to what he saw—emptiness. Her smoky eyes were as expressionless as her face.

  Lauren stopped in front of his desk and stared blankly over his shoulder. Then there was a shimmering in the air around her, and a transparent duplicate of her materialized.

  It was as Raef got to his feet to face this new apparition that it hit him like a punch in the gut. The ghost radiated waves of emotion—yearning, desire, loneliness, longing—emotions Raef had never picked up from another human being, dead or alive, since his psychic talent first manifested that day so many years ago.

  He tried to throw up his mental barriers, the ones he used at murder scenes to successfully block out the lingering spirits and their terror and pain and anger, the only emotions he had, until now, ever been able to Read. But his barriers weren’t working. All he could do was stand there and be battered by the desire and longing that emanated from the ghost.

  “Kent Raef?
” The spirit’s voice drifted through his mind.

  He cleared his throat before he answered, but his voice still sounded scratchy. “Yes. I’m Kent Raef.”

  The spirit sighed with relief. “Finally!” She glanced at her twin. Lauren blinked, as if coming awake after a long sleep, and the ghost and the girl exchanged smiles. “Good job, sis.”

  “You knew I’d figure it out eventually,” Lauren said.

  “And you know it bothers me terribly when you speak to the air like that,” said Mrs. Wilcox.

  “I can tell that corncob is still firmly inserted up your butt, Mother,” said the ghost.

  Lauren coughed to cover a giggle, which was echoed by the ghost, who laughed out loud.

  The laughter in the room raced across his body like static electricity, tingling and bringing all the nerve endings in his skin alive, totally disconcerting him.

  Raef pulled his thoughts together. Ignore the emotions. You can figure out what the hell is going on with that later. Right now he just needed to do his job—solve the murder, put the spirit to rest, close the case file.

  “Aubrey, why don’t you tell me about your death and from there I can—”

  Raef was interrupted by a shriek that moved across his skin with the force of a blow. Aubrey’s mouth was wrenched open as she screamed in agony, a sound that was echoed eerily by her living sister, then her spirit wavered, like heat waves off a furnace, and she disappeared.


  “So you saw, or at least heard something?” Mrs. Wilcox’s words were clipped, and in the silence that followed Aubrey’s disappearance her voice sounded unnaturally loud.

  “Aubrey manifested and spoke to me. Briefly.” Raef answered her, although he didn’t look at the older woman. Instead, he was watching Lauren carefully, noting that her empty expression hadn’t returned, and even though her face couldn’t be called animated, she at least didn’t look zombielike anymore. And also noting that the torrent of emotions that had poured from Aubrey had been abruptly cut off. He cleared his throat, wishing like hell his coffee had a shot of Jack in it. “Please have a seat, Miss Wilcox. There are several things I need to go over with both you and your—”

  “Why don’t you go home, Mother?” Lauren surprised him by interrupting in a brisk, no-nonsense voice as she sat in the chair beside her mother’s. “It would probably be better if I answered his questions alone.”

  “What if it returns, Lauren?”

  “Mother, I’ve told you before that I see Aubrey a lot. She’s dead. That doesn’t make her an it. She’s still Aubrey.”

  “I wasn’t speaking of your sister’s ghost,” Mrs. Wilcox said coolly. “I’m referring to the horrid fugue state that sometimes comes over you.”

  “Mother, I’ve tried to explain this to you before, too. It doesn’t just ‘come over’ me. There’s a reason for it.” Mrs. Wilcox’s face remained implacable and Lauren sighed. “I’m not going to be driving. If I zone out again I’m sure Mr. Raef can babysit me long enough to get me home.”

  “Lauren, I…” her mother began, and then seemed to check herself. She stood and inclined her head formally to Raef. “I assume you will be certain my daughter returns home safely?”

  “I will,” Raef said, not liking the family drama he’d stepped into.

  “Then I will speak to you later, Lauren. It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Raef.”

  After the door closed behind her mother, Lauren sat and met Raef’s gaze. “She’s not as cold and uncaring as she comes off as being. But all of this is just too much for her.”

  “Define this,” he said.

  “This would be my sister’s death and the fact the police have been unable to solve it. Add a dash of Aubrey haunting me with a sprinkle of possession and stir in a big blob of my soul being drained and you get a recipe that would freak out anyone’s mom.” Lauren’s voice was calm, her body appeared relaxed. It was only in her blue eyes that her desperation showed.

  Raef got up and walked to the credenza. He topped off his coffee and then poured a generous cup for Lauren. “Cream or sugar, Miss Wilcox?” he asked over his shoulder.

  “Both, and if we’re going to work together I wish you’d call me Lauren.”

  He fixed the coffee and then handed it to her. “Lauren it is. My friends call me Raef.” He resumed his seat and gave her a brief smile. “Actually, my enemies call me Raef, too.”

  “Do you have many enemies, Raef?”

  “Some,” he said. “Do you?”

  She shook her head. “No.”

  “How about your sister?”

  “No. That’s just one of the reasons this whole thing is so awful. None of it makes sense.”

  “Tell me what you know about your sister’s death, and I’ll see if I can begin making some sense out of it.”

  “I don’t know where to start.” Lauren’s impassive expression tensed and when she sipped her coffee Raef noticed her hands were trembling.

  “Start at the beginning. When was she killed?”

  “July 15. She was alone, even though she shouldn’t have been. I’m almost always with her on jobs—” She paused, flinched in obvious pain. “I mean, I used to almost always be with her.” Lauren corrected herself and regained her composure, then continued in a steadier voice. “July is in the middle of our busy season for maintenance, so we often had to split up to finish jobs on time.”

  “Maintenance? What type of work did you and your sister do?”

  “Landscaping. July can be a rough month on plants if we don’t get enough rain and the Oklahoma heat turns up early, like it did this past July. Plants burn up if they’re not maintained properly through the heat. Aub and I own Two Sisters Landscaping. Or at least we did.” She faltered again, and took another sip of her coffee. “I’m sole owner now.”

  “Of the company? As in you are the biggest stockholder?”

  “Own the company as in Aubrey and I started it, ran it and were its first two employees.” She met his eyes. “Yes, we actually got our hands dirty. A lot.” She held up one hand and Raef’s brows lifted in surprise when he saw that instead of being well manicured and delicately white, Lauren had short, bluntly clipped nails and obvious calluses on her work-hardened palm. He would have never guessed that the daughters of a rich Tulsa socialite would be into something as blue-collar as landscaping.

  “I would have thought a psychic would be better at hiding his thoughts,” Lauren said.

  Raef looked from her hand to her eyes. Then, much to his own surprise, he heard himself admitting, “I usually am.”

  “Dirt-digging girls from rich families must seem pretty unusual to you,” Lauren said.

  Raef gave her a lopsided smile. “Sounds like it’s a reaction you’re used to.”

  “Let’s just say our family wasn’t thrilled when Aubrey and I opened the business six years ago. We were lucky they couldn’t stop us.”

  “Explain that,” Raef said. He didn’t feel the prickle of foreboding he usually did when he stumbled on what would eventually become a lead for solving a murder, so he really didn’t need to question Lauren about her family’s attitude about her business, but he realized he wanted to question her—wanted to know more.

  And that was odd as hell.

  “Aubrey and I received an inheritance from our grandfather when we turned twenty-one. It was ours to do whatever we wanted with—so we started our own business, but instead of buying a chic little boutique in Utica Square someone els
e could run, or following family tradition and investing in real estate, we bought plants and dirt. At least, that’s how our mother put it. Our decision wasn’t popular, but it was ours to make.”

  “So, how was business?”

  “Excellent. It still is. We have five employees and have had to actually turn away jobs. That’s why Aubrey was alone that day—we’d overextended and she was the expert in aquatic plants. So she went by herself to Swan Lake.”

  Raef felt a shock of recognition, and couldn’t believe he hadn’t put two and two together before then. “Aubrey Wilcox, middle of July, electrocuted to death while she was working with the water plants on the Swan Lake island.” Then he realized why he hadn’t recognized the name on his appointment book. It wasn’t a murder investigation. The death had been ruled accidental. What the hell?

  “It wasn’t an accident,” Lauren said firmly, as if she was the mind reader.

  “But if I pulled the police report it would say your sister’s death was accidental, wouldn’t it?”

  “Yes. Does that mean you won’t take the case?”

  “No, I’ll take the case.” Which was nothing unusual. Sometimes families needed his services for closure. Hell, not just his services, but psychics in general. The police could tell the bereaved over and over that it was suicide, or an accident, and they would still hold on to the hope that there was a bad guy, a reason, a focus for their rage and despair. That’s where a Psy came in—and it was one of the reasons they’d become big business, even in a world that was mostly filled with Norms who were uncomfortable with psychic Gifts. By communicating with the spirit of the dead person directly, a psychic could help families come to terms with the truth, move on, find closure. Of course, Raef personally usually preferred a good, old-fashioned murder case—hatred and anger he could deal with. Despair was another story.