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by Teri Adkins
Description: Tala's heritage made her a good cop. Her 'gifts' made her a better one, made her a detective--made her the target of the Ravenmocker. Over six foot, with dark brown hair that looked naturally disheveled and captivating brown eyes that were fanned with dark lashes any woman would envy, Nick Ryan was simply all that was delicious in a male--and Tala's biggest regret. Working with him to destroy the Ravenmocker was going to be hell. Rating: Spicy. Contains sexual content and graphic violence.
eBook Publisher: New Concepts Publishing, 2008
eBookwise Release Date: September 2008
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [161 KB]
Reading time: 100-141 min.
Visitors to Memphis see what we want them to see. The beauty and grace of our skyline at night nestled along the river's edge, the bridge spanning the majestic waters and the formidable pyramid standing guard on the riverbanks.
They see our Rock and Roll history, our blues on Beale Street and our historical homes in Central Gardens. Graceland by day or during candlelight vigils, when the city is on her best behavior.
But like all cities, we have a dark side. And like all good family secrets, we keep our ugliness well hidden.
At times, we can even deny its existence to ourselves. Today I was being forced to face it.
The mist of fog clung to the water's surface like a sentinel protecting his secrets. The October wind blowing across the water was cool, and I wrapped my arms around my waist to chase away the morning chill. My boot heels clicked across the cobblestones as I slipped through the opening in the concrete floodwall and neared the water's edge.
The sunrise, shadowed behind the dilapidated riverboats, made a perfect picture. No one bothered to notice.
The muddy water of the Mississippi river slapped against the naked body as the tide gently rocked her back and forth.
Death had not come easy for her. No floating away on soft angel wings. From the look of the mess death had left behind, it was more likely that the hounds of hell had dragged her away, kicking and screaming.
The morning was silent--as if mourning a life lost--broken only by the soft cries. I followed the sound and looked back toward the wall where two teenagers stood huddled in an attempt to find comfort. Their innocent hopes of getting lucky had turned to the gruesome discovery just before dawn. My eyes moved over the abandoned blanket, dangerously close to the water's edge. I guess the moonlight shining off of the water could be considered romantic to hormonal teenagers, but all I saw were overgrown weeds and the threat of water moccasin. Guess I'm not the romantic type.
My name is Tala Crockett and I'm a detective, second generation, homicide division. The job is who I am, more so than my neat little gift that was dropped on me at birth.
Bottom line, I'm a sensitive. There are fancy names for it, but I prefer to keep it simple. I feel things. I don't hear the victim or see the killer, although with my job that would come in handy. Murder is my job and believe me, it's a busy one in Memphis.
Cops have instincts, intuition. If I pick up on something overlooked at a crime scene I figure it makes me a better cop, more attuned to my job. It also makes the need to erect barriers against emotional energy a necessity. If I absorbed it from every scene, I'd burn out quickly. It happens easy enough in cops who don't relive their victim's pain. Today it was unusually difficult to block, the sensory irritation stronger.
There was a gathering of power, a force pulsating the air. Murmurs, weeping voices carried on the wind. Souls. Too many souls crying out--despair, anguish, injustice. They were trapped, screaming in my head.
I crept closer to the body, ignoring the black river mud that clung to my boots. Charged energy tingled over my skin, causing goose bumps to rise and the hair on my neck to stand. Our emotions create this energy, and it often lingers as disturbance in the air, the greater the emotion, the stronger the energy. I'm like a magnet to it. Found at every crime scene, it closed in on me like a vice around my chest.
My heart rate skyrocketed, mirroring the rhythm of the victim's pulse when she realized death had come for her. Sweat beaded on my skin. My chest burned as I struggled for every breath. I knew it was useless to fight, just as she had known. The red-hot pain as the knife sliced down her chest nearly brought me to my knees. So cold, as the blood ran from her body. I could almost see the bright red liquid, picture it puddling on the ground. Smell the death as the killer stole her life, her soul.
Acid filled my mouth and I swallowed hard, pushing at the energy in an effort to distance myself from her agony. I could feel the cool wind brush against my face, hear the soft cries of the teenagers once again. I was alive, could breath. It wasn't my body floating in the murky water, wasn't my blood spilling on the ground.
I felt the anger, the rush of adrenaline. The killer's? Likely. The air tasted bitter, vile. He had watched her life drain away, relieved, proud that he hadn't failed. His scorn sat rancid on my tongue.
The stench of death, of stagnant water and rot sent my stomach churning and I pressed my lips together to prevent gagging.
The raw-edged power still sizzling in the air beat at me, fragments tearing at my shields. Evil leaves a residue, looking for a home. It wasn't going to find one in me.
Closing my eyes, I reinforced the impenetrable wall around me, protecting me from the invasion. It wouldn't succeed in suffocating me. Rubbing my temple, I focused on my breathing before I hyperventilated. It was a technique I had struggled to master as a child, and I'd often passed out from the low carbon dioxide levels in my blood. Already my head was spinning, my throat burning.
I inhaled deeply, ignoring the ache in my lungs, my head growing light as the air began to flow freely. I was stronger, had spent a lifetime learning how to block the energy, keeping it out. Shielding was the only way to do the job.
Opening my eyes, I scanned the thick underbrush of vines and weeds. There was something out there. I could feel the presence.
The sun was burning off the fog, but beneath the trees, there was a mist of gray gathering, swirling in the air. The willowy smoke began to form, taking the shape of a person. I could blame those dark shadows on the fog, a trick on the eye, but I knew better. These dark shadows had haunted me for too long to deny them. They were the spirits, and they were searching for their lost soul.
Despite what some believe, the spirit and the soul are separate entities. The soul is the essence of the man, the spirit the vessel for the soul after death. When death occurs, the soul unites with the spirit and they move on. If the soul cannot join the spirit, the spirit lingers, searching for the soul.
These soulless spirits become dark shadows. I'd seen my first one at ten when my father had inadvertently brought home the shadow of my mother's killer. I'd nearly lost my sanity before I'd admitted it to my grandfather. He'd called me a shadow walker and taught me survival.
"Are you okay, Detective? You're white as a ghost."
I turned to the uniform standing next to me and focused on his face-the shining, eager face of a rookie. Probably his first body and he was holding up better than me, the seasoned detective.
"I'm fine. Were you first on scene?" My voice did me credit and didn't waiver one bit. I was an adult now, and the shadows didn't frighten me as they had once.
"Yes ma'am. I secured the area before I called it in."
A deep guttural croak had my gaze looking up, landing on the raven perched on the lowest branch. He sat watching us, waiting. He cawed once, and then took to the sky. The sight of a raven always brought mixed emotions for me-a bit of awe, a tinge of fear. I shook it off as I turned at the sound of footsteps.
"Mornin'," Banks said to no one in particular.
D.C. Banks had been the coroner for Shelby County longer than most could remember. It was an elected job--one no one else bothered running for. It wasn't that no one wanted the job. They just accepted there was little chance of beating Banks. He was a steady in a city sometimes out of control, a friendly face we'd all come to recognize. There was comfort in knowing the face that would care for you in death.
Banks placed his field kit on the ground near the body. My gaze lowered to his left hand and my mouth watered. "Is that fresh coffee?" I tried to keep the whine out of my voice but knew I failed. I'd had time to grab one cup and slam it down in route and most days, by this time, I was on my third cup. Some women have a weakness for chocolate. Me? I have an unhealthy addiction to coffee. I figure we're all getting the caffeine. I'm just skipping the pounds that go with it. It takes a brave man to show up this early, coffee in hand, without an extra cup. A woman suffering from low caffeine levels can be dangerous.
"Was." He crumpled the cup and placed it next to his kit. Banks didn't scare easily. "Let's pull her out and see what we've got." He pulled on latex gloves, and passed me a pair.
We rolled her over and I felt my stomach lurch. Good thing I don't do breakfast. While a new round of photos was taken, I took my time studying the body.
She looked to be between twenty-five and thirty and had been in good physical shape. Her eyes were open, haunting brown orbs locked staring at some unseen image. Dead eyes tell the soul is gone. I forced my gaze to move on.
There was a ladybug tattoo on her right hip. Whimsical in life or an impulsive decision later regretted? I preferred to think the former. Throwing her out naked in death had been cruel, demeaning, but he'd made her more human. Dignity was something we all hope we'll find at the end.
I forced myself to look at her chest. It was hard to miss the gaping hole where her heart should have been. The lack of blood indicated she'd been killed elsewhere and then dropped off for the body to be found. I watched as Banks peered inside the cavity, careful not to destroy evidence.
"The heart?" I was afraid to ask. There is a fine line between a killer who kills someone they know in the heat of a moment and a psycho who kills randomly for the pure enjoyment. Both victims are just as dead, but people find comfort in the misconception that no one they know is capable of murder. Means only the random psycho puts them at risk. Removing someone's heart put this killer under the psycho heading whether it was random or not.
"Heart appears to be missing." Banks studied me, watching for my reaction to his news. I fought hard not to show him any. "I'll know more once I get her back to the morgue."
I'm a descendant of the Cherokee, my line traced back to the Natchez of Mississippi. After my mother's death, my grandfather had done his best to teach me the beliefs of our people. I knew enough to know the significance of what I was seeing.
Eyes are the windows to the soul, the heart is the door. Remove the heart before the soul escapes and it becomes trapped. It explained the shadow I'd seen, our victim searching for her soul. My blood turned icy and cooled my skin.
If her soul and spirit could not reunite, she would be trapped to wander our world, unable to travel to the next. A lost shadow.
He'd cut her heart out to take her soul. Twenty years ago, another killer had taken the heart from his victims. It couldn't be the same killer. Even as my head reasoned, something inside me kindled the doubt. I shook it off as absurd. Robert Simon had died at the hands of my own father.
"You're not going pass out on me, are you, Crockett?" Banks asked, staring at me oddly. I might be a girl, but no way was I going to act like one. In my job, it wasn't allowed.
I shot him a dirty look and then squatted beside him for a closer inspection. The move covered the fact that my legs were not quite steady. "What's in her hand?" I could concentrate on doing the job, finding the evidence. There'd be plenty of time later to play the memory game.
Banks pried open her fingers, and I knew. The blood raced through my head and an odd ringing started in my ears. He pulled the black feather from her fingers, and then dropped it into a waiting plastic evidence bag. It took a few seconds for my brain to register the picture my eyes were sending.
"Raven's feather," I whispered.
"I believe so. This isn't the first. I processed a scene three days ago where the victim had the same feather in her hand. Her heart had been removed, as well."
I could only gape at Banks, the implications too enormous to wrap around my mind. Memphis might do murder, but we'd had only one serial killer in the history of the city. And he'd left a raven's feather as his calling card.
"It cannot be the same man, Tala." Banks voice gentled. "You of all people know he's dead."
"The feather was never released." I felt the bile rise in my throat and swallowed hard. My mind was locked on that small feather and what it meant. I wanted to believe what he was saying, had believed it for twenty years. Knowing that Robert Simon was dead had allowed me to sleep some nights.
"You'll need to contact Major Crimes. Talk to detective Nick Ryan, first victim was his." Banks pulled off his gloves and stuffed them in his kit. I mirrored his movements, passing my gloves to him. I nodded, and fought to keep the hysterics at bay. The last thing I wanted was to talk to Nick Ryan.