A TOUCH OF SOUL EXCERPT
Whoever said death was easy was an idiot.
Death was messy, and eternal, and right now, it was giving Autumn Kane a nasty bout of indigestion. She loved her job—she really did. As a necromancer, counseling ghosts and guiding them toward their afterlife was a truly fulfilling career. But helping the police locate their graves and find their bodies gave her heartburn. The world was already a dark and terrifying place—she hardly needed a new degree of crazy to measure by.
“There, I think,” an ethereal voice whispered in her ear. “I can’t remember.”
Autumn turned toward the spirit with a sympathetic smile. “That’s all right. Take it slow.”
Except slow wasn’t an option, if the impatient shuffling of feet behind her was evidence of anything. The police were anxious to find Sadie Wilson’s body and had already cordoned off sections of Essex Street, thereby disturbing the celebrations. Four nights before Halloween and the Festival of the Dead was roaring. Music, laughter, drinks…and apparently a corpse.
Autumn turned and slanted an upward glance at her friend, and police officer, Lieutenant Dawson Hayes. Years of working together had lent them a comfortable partnership. It was her job to inform him of any distressed victims and, if necessary, lead them to the body. As was the case tonight.
“She’ll get there,” Autumn murmured.
“You said you were working a séance when she popped up?”
Autumn chuckled under her breath. “I wouldn’t call it a séance. Someone wanted me to contact their dead dog.”
Ah, the Festival of the Dead. A month-long event during which tourists from all over the world flocked to Salem, Massachusetts, for a chance to commune with their long-lost loved ones. Dogs weren’t exactly her repertoire, and no matter how many times she reiterated that on her website, someone always wanted her to reach out to their beloved Fluffy…
“Of course.” Dawson shook his head.
As for Sadie…she’d popped up in the middle of the transaction, her hysterics enough to startle Autumn. After a few moments, and a few deep breaths, Sadie had calmed down enough to speak her name. The moment Autumn had called Dawson, they knew they had a case. Sadie Wilson, aged twenty-six, had been reported missing two nights ago by her new husband, abducted hours after their wedding.
“The mayor isn’t going to like this.” Dawson’s voice impeded her thoughts. “Blocking off any part of the city right now will do more harm than good.”
She followed his line of sight, noting the bright yellow crime scene tape sequestering off the whole block between Summer and Crombie Streets. Already a crowd was forming, anxious as they waited to find out what was happening.
Autumn glanced over at Sadie. She skimmed across the street, toward a back alley, while nibbling on her nonexistent thumbnail as she inspected her surroundings. Lost and confused, she gazed back with a lined face, her terse stare cutting right through Autumn. She was remembering something painful if the stark terror filling her eyes was any indication.
After a few moments, she shuddered and faded a bit, her body vanishing into the nothingness that Autumn knew little about. “I was brought here,” she called out, voice thick with panic. “I—I remember an arm latched around my throat, and something sharp pressed against my back…”
A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature went right through Autumn. Clearly, there wasn’t a happy ending to this story.
Sadie drifted toward the nearby inn. She reached out and then grimaced when her hand phased through the wall. “Someone threw me up against here. The bricks scraped my skin. Then I was dragged down here.”
With a deep breath, Autumn peered into the opaque darkness. Had to be an alley. What was it about shadowy places that attracted killers? Suppressing another shudder, she glanced back at Dawson and gestured down the back street. “She says this is the spot. Shall we?”
“Give us a few moments to finish setting up the perimeter.” He turned away and gestured toward the other officers.
Autumn nodded. Though she assisted the police in locating victim’s bodies, she wasn’t one of them. They had their procedures, ones she was very familiar with now. First priority was keeping out the public. To them, this was nothing more than a show. It didn’t matter that a young woman had been murdered.
“I’m cold,” Sadie murmured as she drifted closer. “It’s cold here.”
It was freezing, but it had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the ghost. For some reason, the area surrounding a spirit was always ten degrees cooler.
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Autumn grimaced. “That’s up to you. Do you remember seeing any gateways at any point after…well, at any time after the event?”
Pushing a stray hair behind her ear, Autumn glanced up at Sadie. “Usually, when someone passes, they see a room with a series of doors, or—”
“Yes!” Sadie lit up, a moment of joy smoothing over her face. “I opened them all but didn’t recognize anything. Then I saw you.”
It was a typical response. Something about necromancers drew spirits like moths to a flame. Unfortunately, there were only three in the city. Her father, who had long since retired; her sister, who had found her bliss as a small business owner; and Autumn, the only one in her family who willingly worked with victims.
“Eventually, you’ll find yourself back in that room,” Autumn continued, “and when you do, you’ll have to choose again.”
The temperature dipped. “But there were so many doors!”
“Can’t you tell me which one to pick?”
“No, I’m sorry. The choice is yours to make. I don’t know what lies beyond.”
Sadie blinked, her long, ghostly lashes fluttering against her cheeks. “What do you mean? Aren’t you here to guide me?”
She might have chuckled at that were the situation not so grim. “No. I’m not a reaper. But I am someone who wants to help you find whoever hurt you and give you closure so you can move on.”
“But you can’t help me choose the right door.”
A twinge of compassion lit through Autumn. “I’m sorry. I don’t have those answers for you.”
“We’re almost ready,” Dawson called to her. “Is she still here?”
“He can’t see me?” Sadie asked, a puzzled frown wrinkling her brow.
“Yes, she’s here. And no, Sadie, he can’t see you. Only I can.”
Ah, another hard question. “I don’t know. Part of what makes some humans special, I suppose. Some can sense emotions,” much like her best friend Lexi, “or have an affinity with the elements,” like her friend Connor, “and some, like me, see the dead after they pass on.”
“But you’re not a cop.”
“No, I’m not,” Autumn murmured. “But I do work closely with them. I help them in situations like these, help them find victims like you. Help them locate you so that you can be returned to your family. I act as the mediator between the victim and the police.”
Sadness creased Sadie’s eyes, but eventually, she nodded.
“All right, we’re ready,” Dawson said after sharing a few muttered words with another officer. He turned and glanced down the pitch-black alley, then handed her a flashlight. “This is one of those nights I wished you carried a weapon.”
Autumn arched a brow, her lips curving into an amused smile. “I think I can do more damage than you, thank you.” And Dawson knew that. All part of being a necromancer. She didn’t simply speak with the dead; she could raise and control them too. There were other skills available to her, but most were considered dark magic, and her father had taught her never to steal the soul or essence of another living being.
“Yes, well, magic versus a weapon. I think I’d rather you carry a gun. Your sister will kill me if you get hurt on my watch.”
Autumn couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across her face. Her sister would never harm a hair on Dawson’s head. Riley was far too smitten with the lieutenant, not that he was perceptive enough to realize it. The man was married to his career and rarely stopped to take in anything else.
“Don’t forget. If I die, my family can resurrect me.”
A dark scowl twisted Dawson’s face. “Oh, that’s reassuring.”
“I’ve always wondered what brains taste like.”
She met his narrowed gaze with a sheepish grin. “What?”
“Not the time or place.”
Seemed her poor attempt at humor was unappreciated. She turned back toward the alley with a shrug, about to head within, when she felt an odd sensation skate across the back of her neck. Frowning, she turned and peered out into the crowd. Something wasn’t right. Her gaze skipped across all the faces as she searched for the source.
“What’s wrong?” Dawson asked.
“I don’t know.” She couldn’t quite explain it. The night felt off somehow, as though somewhere in the shadows lingered an evil presence. The killer, perhaps? Hidden among the crowd, waiting for them to discover the victim? She shivered and rubbed her hands down her arms.
Dawson lifted a brow. “You all right?”
“There’s something…it feels like I’m being watched.”
“You feel it too?” Sadie whispered.
Autumn shot the spirit a stunned glance, but nodded.
“What’s wrong?” Dawson raked her over with an inquisitive stare.
“I can’t place my finger on it.” She studied the crowd again, convinced it was the source. “The night feels…”
“Wrong,” Sadie supplied.
Dawson blinked. “The night feels ‘yes’?”
“No.” Autumn shook her head. “That was for Sadie. Something’s out here, something not quite right.”
Mouth pursed, he glanced away with a frustrated grunt. “You need to fill in the blanks for the mundane one here.”
“There’s something weird about this place,” Autumn answered. “I can’t explain it. I just…don’t want to go down there.”
“Understandable,” he said, his voice gentle. “Homicide scenes evoke strong emotions within people.”
Autumn gave a clipped nod. She might deal with the dead and speak with ghosts, but murders were so far beyond her expertise. Not to mention, it was a touch disturbing to think of a crazed lunatic hiding out amongst the innocent bystanders, waiting for them to stumble across the scene.
“It’s all right.” Compassion softened Dawson’s gaze. “I’m right here, and you have a pack of officers at your back, waiting to catch themselves a bad guy. You’re as safe as you can be.”
Except that wasn’t the problem. Something else was out there—something Dawson couldn’t feel. What he felt was nothing more than the rush of the hunt. It wasn’t the same as the otherworldly, and unnerving, sensation crawling up her spine.
Psyching herself up, she rolled out her neck and shoulders, and, as a precaution, called her magic to hand in a wash of green light. No way in hell was she wandering through the dark without some form of protection. Excited chatter rose among the surrounding crowd. A real-life taste of magic. Well, if that hadn’t made their night, nothing else would.
Once settled, she turned to Sadie. “Ready?”
“Yes. I want this done,” she murmured.
Autumn gestured the spirit forward, and together they stepped into the alley. Sadie moved fast, clearing all the nooks and crannies without pause. Seemed her memory had improved. Autumn wasn’t sure if that was for the best or not. Finally, they approached a dumpster, and Sadie paused, her shoulders slumped in grief. Autumn didn’t need to ask, she felt it deep in her bones. A body, half-sunken in refuse next to the dumpster.
“Jesus,” a cop muttered as he skirted by.
He wasn’t wrong. The sight was far more gruesome than she’d expected. A dark pool of blood had spread across the cobblestone and congealed beneath bags of garbage, her virginal wedding gown now a macabre sight. Whoever had done this had discarded Sadie’s body as though it were nothing. The worst was the jagged gash slitting her throat, an eternal red smile to wear to her grave.
She must have shivered because Dawson came up next to her and offered a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You all right?”
“Oh, sure.” As all right as one could expect. It wasn’t the corpse that had her stomach churning. It was the unnecessary violence and the casual disregard for Sadie’s body.
“All right. Well, it’s going to be a while yet. We’ve sent for the medical examiner. You know the process.”
She did. It would be hours before they cleared the scene, and in the meantime, it was her responsibility to extract every bit of useful information from the victim. “I’ll take Sadie back out to the street. She doesn’t need to see this.” Nor did Autumn feel the need to watch.
“Don’t start questioning her without me,” he commented before starting toward the body. “I’ll only be a few moments.”
Autumn approached Sadie, her heart breaking as she watched the poor woman sob quietly into her hand.
“It’s true then.” She shook her head, unable to tear her gaze away from her own body. “I didn’t think it’d be true, you know?”
Autumn nodded. Throughout the years, she’d dealt in all manner of death from resurrections, to séances, to tonight’s main feature of modern grave dowsing, but none of that made any of this easier. No matter how often she did this, it didn’t harden her heart. It was common for spirits to hold onto false hope. Some always clung to a kernel of belief that it was a nightmare, or that when they found their bodies, they’d be able to climb back in and live again. Eventually, they’d realize the truth, and that moment was now.
Sadie tore her attention away from the crime scene and turned back to Autumn. “Tell me this isn’t true…”
“You already know it is.” She kept her voice soft and gentle. “Come on. You don’t need to watch this. Let the police do their job.”
Without waiting for a response, Autumn started down the alley back toward Essex Street. Two officers stood near the perimeter, holding off the gawking bystanders and photographers. Thankfully, Sadie’s body was around a short corner, veiled from prying eyes and interlopers.
The moment they crossed the perimeter, Autumn hesitated. There it was again. The strange sensation skating over her skin. She lifted her head and peered into the crowd, the many faces blurring as she sought the source. Was the killer still here? Waiting for some sort of response from the police? Was that what she was sensing? She shivered and wrapped her arms around her middle.
Autumn let Sadie cry in peace until, finally, Dawson approached. Since the police didn’t have the funds for a permanent spirit medium, they’d assigned her the task of questioning the victims. The courts weren’t quite willing to consider ghostly testimonies yet, but the station insisted on keeping records. Maybe one day their statements would mean something, and on that day, they would have all the information they needed.
Dawson approached, notepad and pen in hand, which he then handed over to Autumn. She’d done this a few times now, enough to know the questions without him dictating anymore.
“Sadie,” Autumn murmured. “I know this is hard, but it would really help us if you could describe the events leading up to your death.”
Her teary eyes snapped to Autumn and Dawson. “I don’t like that word.”
Autumn offered a gentle smile and made a mental note to avoid it as best as possible.
“I don’t know what you want from me.” She tossed up her arms. “Jared and I had just taken our vows.” Her voice quivered. “We had a few hours before the reception, and we were supposed to be meeting the photographer somewhere. I told Jared I had to use the washroom.” She glanced back toward the alley with a wistful smile. “I loved my dress, but it was difficult to move around in, you know? I was about to call someone in to come help when the door opened. I remember…a low drawn baseball cap and a long, dark jacket, but that’s it.”
Autumn glanced up from the pad. “Do you recall the gender? Was it a man or woman who entered the bathroom?”
“Man, I think.” Sadie’s nose wrinkled as she struggled to think back. “I’m…not entirely sure.”
Autumn didn’t want to say anything for fear of upsetting her, but it was common for those who had suffered before death to possess fractured memories. Things their minds rejected and refused to recall for fear of breaking. She had to tread carefully. If Sadie lost herself while trying to remember, crossing over would be near impossible.
“Anything else? How about a scent? Or a sound? A voice perhaps?”
Her gaze dimmed as she fought to remember. “Nothing was said. The door opened, someone entered, took one look at me, and that’s all I remember.”
There had to be more. Even if the killer hadn’t said anything, he would have moved or gestured, pulled a weapon, something that would have forced Sadie to leave the safety of the building.
“All right. Do you know where Jared was during all this?”
Sadie shook her head. “I’d left him with his best man, Chris. They’d mentioned going outside to wait for me. I told one of my bridesmaids to stay nearby, waiting in case I needed help.”
Autumn latched onto that. “Her name?”
“Someone had called Emily away. By the time she’d returned, Sadie was already gone.” Dawson interjected when he saw the notes. “Emily, Jared, and Chris were the three to report her missing. Unfortunately, it was only hours after she’d vanished.”
Autumn sighed. “Meaning they couldn’t officially report her as missing.”
“Right. For all we knew, the wedding had overwhelmed her, and she’d needed time to recuperate.”
“I would never have abandoned Jared!” Sadie shouted. A shimmer of red rippled down her body, her enraged eyes settling on Dawson.
“I know.” Autumn held up a hand. “No one is saying you would. But there’s procedure when someone goes missing, and a few hours isn’t enough time for the police to issue a bulletin.”
“Her husband came in the next night to file an official report.”
Autumn nodded, her heart breaking for the poor man. Now someone would have to tell him that they found his beautiful bride, dumped in an alleyway. “Can you think of anything else, Sadie? How about after the abduction?”
“I already told you about that.”
Autumn nodded. The blindfold and the sharp weapon at her back. But there remained a great deal missing. “Do you remember how you got from the church to here?”
Huffing under her breath, Sadie circled Dawson, her eyes narrowed as though she found him offensive now. Dawson wouldn’t sense her, but Autumn cleared her throat when he lifted his arms to warm himself. A ghost’s wrath could be rather chilling.
“Sadie? I need you to focus. How were you brought here?”
The ghost stopped and focused her intent stare on Autumn. There was something in her eyes, confusion and pain marring her face. “I don’t feel well.”
That brought Autumn up short. “What? What are you talking about? You shouldn’t feel anything.”
Sadie spun on the spot, her arms clutched around her middle. “I’m going to be sick!”
Sick? No. Ghosts didn’t get sick. Autumn followed Sadie’s line of sight, her narrowed gaze roving over the crowd. Nothing stuck out at her as unusual. But she still felt it…the otherness lingering in the night. And the more she concentrated, the more she was sure it was moving through the darkness.
Instinctively, she recalled her magic, her fingers illuminating with an eerie green glow that spread up her arm. The crowd’s excitement rose as they watched her, surging as close to the perimeter as they could. It sickened her; they thought this was a show.
Dawson cursed, his wide eyes following her. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Shh,” Autumn counseled, reaching out with her senses. “Sadie, what do you feel?”
“No!” She shouted the word, loud enough to make Autumn jump.
She glanced back at Sadie, noting how the poor woman doubled over and clutched at her gut, her face a twisted mess. Autumn spun in a circle, at a loss for words as she studied the scene.
“Leave me alone!” Sadie cried out.
None of this made sense. “What’s happening?”
Sadie’s answer came in the form of a bloodcurdling scream, one Autumn was sure she would always remember. Then, right before her eyes, Sadie vanished, her shriek echoing in the night.
Just like that. She was gone.
What the hell?
Autumn spun in a tight circle, searching the nearby area for her lost ghost. She’d never seen anything like that before, never heard a ghost complain of feeling sick. Not to mention she couldn’t see whatever Sadie had spotted off in the distance.
“Autumn?” Dawson questioned.
“We have to find her.”
“How about telling me what happened, first.”
Autumn tossed up her hands. “She vanished.”
“Ghosts do that sometimes.”
She shook her head. “No. Not like this. She was scared of something I couldn’t see.”
Dawson released a heavy breath and circled with her. “I don’t see anything.”
Of course he didn’t. Dawson was one of the most mundane humans she’d ever met. Autumn couldn’t fault him for that, but she was at a loss for words. “Sadie?” she called.
“Officer Hayes?” another called. “We’re going to need you for a second.”
“Shit. Stay here,” Dawson ordered. “I’ll be right back.”
The moment he walked off, she felt it again. A bizarre vibe. Screw this. Like hell she was going to stand there and let this presence pass her by.
She slipped under the tape and forced her way into the crowd. Shocked gasps rose to her ears as they scrambled to give her space, afraid of the magic crawling over her skin. Lips pursed, she pushed to the back of the crowd and opened herself up to the night, allowing her magic to roam freely. It wasn’t something she often did. The dead were everywhere. Beneath her feet in the plants, insects, and animals, not to mention Burying Point Cemetery five minutes away. Salem was no stranger to the dead.
It wasn’t until she faced west that she saw it. A dim orb zipping through the streets toward the touristy Witch House. Ignoring the cries of the bystanders, Autumn took chase. It had to be Sadie. Her feet pounded against the cobblestone road as she chased down the presence. “Sadie?”
She paused in front of the house. Gone again. Sadie’s essence had completely vanished.
The sound of rustling bushes had Autumn whirling on the spot. The streets were bare here, the bystanders too intrigued by the crime scene to have followed her. Not a soul in sight other than her.
Cursing under her breath, Autumn started back the way she’d come. Alone on a darkened street in the middle of the night did not make for a happy ending.
A rock skittered across the street.
Someone is here.
She sucked in a breath, about to scream for help, when a pair of arms latched around her and dragged her back into the shadows.