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Banshee Detective: Chapter 1

--By Kirsten Weiss

The Banshee Detective launches March 17th!


Chapter One

Riga loved being a metaphysical detective. She loved unraveling paranormal puzzles. She loved putting things right. She loved being her own boss, working on her own time, in her own way. This was the first time she felt guilty about it.


The volume in the Irish pub was low. Only a few patrons sat around tables near the stone fireplace at this early hour. Copper pots and kettles hung from the dark-beamed ceiling alongside swags of holly and mistletoe. Though it was November, the holiday decorating had already begun.


Riga’s auburn-haired reflection wavered in the mirror, above a shelf lined with bottles.

She would have preferred a wine bar.


Wine bars had wine. Not that she would drink on the job. And not that she really minded an Irish pub. Selectivity was a luxury she couldn’t afford. The universe of metaphysical-detecting gigs was limited.


“Come on. Is your name really Rita Hayworth?” Opposite her, her client braced his elbow on the bar. Broad and well over six feet, he was muscular and twice her size. The man clawed a hand through his thick, porter-colored hair.


Reginold Bloggs was roughly Riga’s age—mid-forties. Though she appeared a decade younger—a quirk of her magic—the pub owner looked his age. Cheerful lines spoked from the corners of his brown eyes.


“Riga,” she corrected, “not Rita. Rita was an actress.”


“Yeah, I know. I just thought—you kind of look like her. Maybe her ghost’s influencing you,” he added with a short laugh. The sleeves of his button-up white shirt pulled against his biceps.


“Unlikely.” Riga would know if any ghosts were around. It was one of the few tricks left up her sleeve. And if Reginold knew about influencing, he knew more about the spirit world than he’d let on when he’d called to hire her.


The pub owner shrugged apologetically. The thin dishtowel shifted on his burly shoulder. “Hey, everybody’s haunted one way or another. Right?”


It was a depressingly accurate comment. If only she could shake the ghosts of her old mistakes and bad habits.


“What’s wrong?” The pub owner walked around the dark-wood bar to join her. “Someone walk over your grave?”


“Let’s hope not.” On the barstool, she crossed her legs, relaxing into the room’s easy warmth.

She imagined drunken customers didn’t give the big man too much trouble. Though someone had at least once in the past. Reginold’s flattened, crooked nose told that story.


“Tell me about your ghost,” she said.


Reginold sat beside her. “Not sure what else to tell you. All the action happens in the cellar. Boxes and bottles moved around, clanks and rattles, that sort of thing.”


A bartender with supermodel cheekbones and hair like pale ale poured a Guinness from a gleaming tap. He handed it to a redheaded waitress in green. She swished away.


Riga nodded, making a mental note to stop comparing the pub employees to beers. But it was hard to resist. The waitress’s hair could be strawberry-sour. And her own Donovan…


No. His hair was too black to compare to beer. Guilt twinged in her chest.


“Have you noticed any patterns?” Riga asked. “Are there any particular times the incidents occur?”


“Nighttime, mostly,” the pub owner said promptly. “I thought one of my employees was ripping me off, stealing the booze. But one night I heard something down there. When I checked, the cellar was empty. But things had been moved, and a beer bottle was broken.”


A horn honked outside, and she glanced out a paned window. Mercury clouds lowered over Lake Tahoe and obscured the snow-covered mountain peaks. The shore was rimed with snow and ice.


A dark, birdlike figure soared beneath the clouds, and Riga frowned. The shape darted upward, vanishing into the gray mass.


Riga tore her gaze from the clouds. “And what do you want me to accomplish?”


“Best case?” He tugged the white towel from his shoulder and dropped it on the bar. “Evidence I can post online. Or at least your confirmation that it is a ghost.”


“If it is,” she warned, “I’ll try to help it pass on.”


Behind the bar, the blond bartender huffed a laugh. “That’ll wreck the story.”


Reginold grinned at the man and gave the bar a polish with the cloth towel. “Nah. We don’t have to tell anyone the ghost’s gone.” He met Riga’s gaze. “Do we?”


Riga laughed. “Who am I to ruin a good marketing gimmick?” These days, ghosts made for some of the best marketing. She’d been in the PR game before becoming a metaphysical detective. She missed the money, but not much else.


“I researched the building,” she continued. “There were no reports of any deaths here.”

But if there was something haunting the place, it wasn’t necessarily a ghost. There were other supernatural entities, and they could be more destructive than spirits.


“Which makes a ghost story more of a stretch.” Reginold ran a broad hand over his jaw. “But who knows? Maybe there’s a death that wasn’t reported. Or someone died in the building that was here before this one.”


Or it the phonomena be something else entirely, like bad plumbing. She smiled, noncommittal. “May I see the cellar?”


“Why not? It’s why you’re here.”


He led her to a battered wooden door. A light turned on automatically when he walked onto the landing. They descended a set of narrow stairs.


Riga followed, stepping cautiously. She ran one hand lightly over the rough wooden banister.


“The stairs are uneven,” he said over his shoulder. “Watch yourself.”


Her booted feet clunked hollowly on the wooden steps. A whiff of warmth and greenery billowed upward. Her heart expanded in response with memories of youth and spring.


Her foot caught on something, and she stumbled. The big man whirled, gripping her arm and stopping her fall.


“You okay?” he asked, releasing her.


Grateful, Riga rubbed her arm where he’d grabbed her. “Fine. Thanks. And good catch.” She scanned the step. She’d tripped over something, but the stairs were clear. And where had that scent come from?


She reached the brick floor and stopped short in surprise. The cellar was huge, its metal shelving lined with boxes. At the far end, an open door led to another room. “It looks as big as the pub itself,” she said.


Reginold grunted. “Nearly.”


Riga centered herself and extended her senses. A shiver, like laughter, tickled the skin on her upper arm.


Her hand gripped the strap of her leather satchel, hung crossways over her shoulder. Unconsciously, she tugged it closer. She inhaled the scent of fresh-cut grass.


Reginold’s flattened nose wrinkled. “It’s kind of manky in here, isn’t it? Sorry about that. We try to keep it dry. Dehumidifiers.” He motioned toward a plastic box humming in one corner.


“It’s fine.” She stood motionless for a long while, then shook her head. “I’m not sensing any spirits, but you said the incidents mostly occur at night?”


“Yeah. Not until at least nine o’clock.”


“Then it makes sense for me to return for an after-dark investigation. Would tonight work for you?”


His broad forehead creased. “Hey, whenever. It’s no skin off my nose. Just, uh, you want to stay the whole night?”


“Only until three.” Most haunting activity seemed to end by then. And she was old enough to appreciate her warm bed in general, and the man she shared it with in particular. Midnight investigations were losing their charm. “Why? Is that a problem?”


He shook his shaggy head. “No, no problem. I just, uh… Will someone be with you?”


“No, I work alone.” Another tremor of guilt ran through her chest. Why hadn’t she told Donovan about the new job? She could have invited him along.


Her fiancé had recently acquired the ability to see the dead. Now he thrived on testing his expanded vision. But Donovan was a busy man and well-known—some would say infamous. Bringing him in might have caused more problems…


Her mouth tightened. Now she was making excuses.


She should have asked Donovan.


They were getting married in a month. And though the day couldn’t come soon enough, she still had no idea how to work as a couple. Which was the problem with marrying later in life. She’d spent decades doing things the way she wanted, when she wanted. Alone.


But she didn’t want to be alone anymore. Donovan had changed that. And it wasn’t too late for her lone-wolf habits to change. At least she hoped it wasn’t.


Riga explored the cellar with the pub owner, then she returned to the house she shared with Donovan. He was still at his casino. The big, lakeside home echoed with loneliness.


At loose ends, she prepared her kit for the night—salt, flashlight, extra batteries, Tarot cards, cameras, chocolate bar, water, EMF detector. Then she double checked it. She did more research on the pub and found nothing.


And when Donovan phoned to tell her he’d been called to Vegas for an emergency, she pretended not to feel the easing between her shoulder blades at the thought of another paranormal investigation on her own.

***

Muffled laughter and music percolated into the pub’s cellar as Riga arranged video cameras in the corners of the two rooms. Happy to have a paying gig again, she whistled an Irish tune. If Reginold wanted evidence, she’d do her best to get something internet-worthy.


Riga poured a protective salt circle on the bricks. When everything was organized to her satisfaction, she turned off the industrial, overhead lamps. A transom window at street level allowed enough light from the street for her to make out vague shapes and the bonelike gleam of the salt.


Riga stepped inside the circle and muttered an incantation. Hairs lifted on her arms, the protective barriers snapping into place.


She extended her senses. That verdant warmth was still there, though fainter. “My name’s Riga Hayworth. If you’d like to talk, I’m here, and I can hear you.”


No one responded. This didn’t surprise her, since she could see spirits as well. If any were in the cellar, they were hiding.


Riga settled in for a wait. An hour passed.


She left the circle and walked through the cellar, wanding the area with her EMF and temperature detector. She didn’t require either for herself, but the pub owner wanted evidence to post online. And the devices could identify natural causes of seemingly paranormal events.

She found a few cold spots. They were the same she’d identified in her first exploration of the cellar and likely due to drafts. The detector spiked when she neared the humming dehumidifier, the electrical appliance interfering with her device.


The toe of Riga’s boot nudged something small, a mousetrap. She snapped it, then scanned the cellar for more and disabled those as well. Maybe she’d save at least one soul tonight.


She walked in the opposite direction and into the far room. “It must get boring down here,” she said. “Honestly, I’m an excellent listener.” Listening beat talking.


Something clanked in the first room. She strode into it, her EMF detector extended toward the wooden stairs, her bootheels loud on the bricks. “Hello?”


There was no response. Shadows stretched in the gloom, darkness on darkness.


The humidifier fell silent. The air in the cellar seemed to thicken, grow heavy, muffling the laughter from above.


A creeping sense of being watched tightened the back of her neck. She turned jerkily, scanning the dark cellar, her breath quickening.


It’s only a ghost. There was nothing to be afraid of. But why couldn’t she see it?


And suddenly she was afraid. Riga couldn’t deny the sense of wrongness in the cellar. She couldn’t deny her unease, the slipperiness of her palms on the plastic device, her heart banging against her ribs.


And there was nothing there. Nothing.


Fecund heaviness pressed on her lungs. The air had grown marshy, damp and green. Green like the cloven-hooved god Pan, root of the word panic. She would not panic. Her hand squeezed the EMF detector. She gasped a ragged breath.


The pressure released. The dehumidifier hummed. The noise from the pub above returned.


She sagged, drawing in deep breaths. Only a ghost.


Yanking her suede safari jacket tighter, Riga swallowed, stepped inside the protective circle, and re-energized the barriers. She was being overly cautious, but better too much caution than too little. Usually.


Another hour passed. Two. Inside her circle, she drew Tarot cards in the light of a candle. The noise in the pub quieted.


Riga did more circuits of the cellar, returning each time to her protective circle to face the stairs. She told herself she wasn’t worried about the restless dead. But pub staff had descended the stairs twice already. She didn’t want them to surprise her, make her jump and gasp like an amateur.


Riga yawned. The room seemed to have lightened. She rubbed her eyes and blinked.

The sides of the stacked boxes were more defined—the room had brightened. She scanned the room, turned, and stilled.


A candle flame hung in the doorway between the two rooms. Around the flame was a nimbus of sickly, gold-green light.


Damp cold swept her spine. The flashlight fell from her nerveless fingers. Its glass shattered on the brick floor, and it went out. Winter coiled in her abdomen and snaked upward to clutch her heart.


That wasn’t a ghost. It wasn’t even a freaking poltergeist.


She swayed. Her lips moved in a silent curse. Bobbing slightly, the candle flame drifted away from her.


Her heart pounded in her ears. The flame moved deeper into the other room.


A wild impulse to bolt up the stairs seized her. But her boots were nailed to the floor.

She could leave. The video cameras had likely captured the phenomenon. She’d gotten Reginold his evidence. There was nothing to stop her from going.


Salt stung her eyes. She blinked rapidly.


Nothing but her cameras. They’d capture her too, running like a little girl. And that stopped her. She was a metaphysical detective and a licensed PI, and she had her pride.


Riga licked her lips. She stepped from the salt circle and followed the fairy.


Mouth dry, she crept into the far room. The flame hung suspended in a corner and illuminated the metal shelves lining the walls. It sank to hover six inches above the brick floor.


Riga edged closer. The flame bulleted downward, vanishing between the bricks.


Wil-o-wisps were fairies appearing as candle-like flames. Their favorite trick was luring unwary travelers to soggy deaths in bogs. The thick scent of a warm spring afternoon flooded the cellar.


“This is fine,” she said to no one, her voice hollow and thin. She hated fairies.

And whatever this fairy was, it was not a wil-o-wisp. But it had lured her here. Why?


Riga edged closer. The tiny flame rose through the bricks. She froze.


It hovered six inches above the bricks, then dropped between them again. Frowning, Riga tilted her head. Between the bricks?


She walked closer, her gaze flicking warily to the shelves heavy with boxes. Crouching, she pulled her keychain from her pocket and turned on its mini flashlight.


Riga’s lips pursed. There was no mortar between the bricks in this section of floor. She hadn’t noticed that before. And she’d spent enough time sitting on the bricks in the other room to know that they had mortar.


She crossed the room, scanning the floor. Most of the bricks here had been mortared. The exception was the suspiciously long rectangular section where the light had led her.


“Hey,” a man said from behind her, and she jumped. Scowling, she turned to face Reginold.


“Sorry if I scared you.” The pub owner smiled ruefully.


Her jaw tightened. If? She was just glad she hadn’t screamed. Small favors.


“We’re closing up,” he continued. “I just wanted to see if you needed anything.”


“A crowbar.”


He blinked. “Uh. What?”


“Have you got one?”


“Yeah, I... Just a minute.” He shambled from the room, returning a few minutes later. He handed her the crowbar. “I feel I should ask why you need a crowbar.”


She pointed with it toward the bricks. “Did you remove the mortar between these?”


His forehead creased. “The mortar...? No. I didn’t notice that. It could be old. Maybe it just, you know, dissolved.”


“I don’t think so.” Riga inserted the crowbar between two bricks. She pried one free, setting it beside a far shelf.


“Uh.” Reginold shifted his weight. “I actually rent the building. I don’t own it. Maybe we shouldn’t—”


She pried up another brick, setting it on top of the first. “I’m not going to damage anything. There’s dirt beneath these and no mortar. Have you got a shovel?”


“I’ll just, uh... Okay.” He left the room.


Riga returned to work on the bricks. After the first one had been pried out, the rest went easily. She had a squat pyramid of them by the time Reginold returned with a shovel.


Riga extended her hand. “Thanks.”


“No, I’ll do it. Where do you want me to dig?”


At least chivalry wasn’t completely dead. Relieved, she pointed at the center of the gap she’d made in the bricks. “There.” She reached across her chest to massage her opposite shoulder.


He braced his booted foot on the shovel and broke ground. He piled damp soil beside the stacked bricks. “What do you expect to find?”


“If we’re lucky, a pot of gold.” But Riga knew luck wasn’t in the cards.


“That would be—” The shovel stuck. An awful, unmistakable rotting stench drifted from the hole. He jerked away, the back of one hand pressed to his nose. “My God.”


Breathing through her mouth, Riga knelt. She brushed aside the dirt, exposing a swatch of gray fabric. Her chest hitched. “I think you should call the police now.”


“Is that—?”


“A body.”


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