“What’s up, Detective?”
Dan raised his hand in dismissal of his own brief expletive and moved forward, making a careful stroll around the table’s circumference, looking for anything that might be lying on the floor. He settled each foot one step at a time, eyes downcast. No scuff marks on the carpet, no debris. With the exception of the uncanny positioning of Alva’s body, all appeared in order. “Who called this in?”
“A neighbor noticed the parlor lights on. Figured it was late for that, so asked us to check on her.”
He shot a glance at Whitley. “And what was this neighbor doing out at this hour?”
“Walking his dog,” Whitley informed him. “Seemed straight up.”
Dan nodded and completed his circuit around the table, pausing once again at the woman’s right side. He bent and studied Alva’s neck, her face. He looked over her clothing, her hands resting on the table, the right turned up, a single card gripped in the fingers. Beyond them, a series of illustrated cards lay in a pattern on the table. Dan assumed the card in Alva’s hand coincided with the one empty space. He didn’t know anything about Tarot reading, although he had heard that people sometimes performed their own. Across from Alva, the guest chair remained pushed against the table and the rug beneath undisturbed. He felt safe in concluding the presence of the cards didn’t necessarily mean someone had been there.
Dan’s gaze strayed back to the card in Alva’s hand. He wondered what the picture on it signified and supposed each card held a meaning. Perhaps the pattern in which they ended up on the table did, as well. Quackery, if you asked him. The pictures, however, were quite beautiful, especially the one in Alva’s hand. What he could see of it appeared to be a woman in ceremonial garb, dark hair curling down her shoulders but partially concealed by some type of headdress.
He heard the voice of the local ME outside at the bottom of the short flight of steps leading to the front door. God, he’d forgotten to close it. He glanced at Alva apologetically, but stopped at the realization she was beyond caring. He turned back to the two officers. “I always heard Alva didn’t have any family. Did you locate any signs of her people? Photos?”
Green stirred. “Not in here, but we’ll check around the house. Hello, Dr. Rankin.”
Charlie Rankin lumbered into the room carrying a folded black bag. He nodded. “Jonathan. Dick. Dan, congratulations on the promotion.”
“Thanks,” Dan said. The young officers exchanged a glance. Dan ignored them. Rankin’s assistant arrived dragging a rattling gurney.
Rankin cleared his throat. Beside him, the younger man, eyes wide, glanced at Alva, then around the decorated parlor. Rankin’s face wrinkled in amusement. “Ed here thinks Alva’s ghost is going to follow him home.”
Dan frowned. “And why would he think that?”
Ed’s voice squeaked like a dry hinge as he answered, “The things she’s done. You know, seeing the future, talking to the dead. All of it.”
Grunting, Dan stepped out of their way. “Ed, that’s a load of bullshit. She was good at fooling people, that’s all.”
Rankin chuckled and started his cursory exam. Dan backed to the corner, instructing Whitley and Green to check the house for photos or paperwork that might help with notification. “You see any evidence someone else has been searching the place before you, give me a shout.”
“No family?” Rankin asked.
“Not that I’m aware. Never heard of any, and it’s always been rumored she was the last Mabry.”
Dan released a breath as Ed unzipped the bag and laid it on the floor. Rankin removed the card from Alva’s fingers, placing it on the vibrant tablecloth. Dan lifted the card to the light fixture centered over the table. The corners were worn with use, the sheen gone, yet the blue of the woman’s dress remained strong, shimmering in the bulb’s illumination against a background yellowed with age. The woman’s eyes stared out from the picture in an enigmatic gaze. Other symbols lurked in the illustrated scenery. Yes, really quite beautiful. Dan was about to toss the card down when Ed spoke beside him.
“The Priestess card,” he said.
Dan frowned. “The what?”
“What is that? And how do you know?”
Ed shrugged. “Been around it some growing up. The women in my family fancied themselves touched by the Sight or something. Hate all of it.”
“Hate’s a pretty strong word. Some reason for that?”
“Don’t mind him,” Rankin said with a jerk of his head toward Ed. “He’s a superstitious youngster.”
“Oh, because superstition is something you outgrow,” Ed shot back at him. “I’ve seen you cross yourself before moving a body.”
“That’s religion. There’s a difference.” With that, he raised his hand and did precisely what Ed had said.
Funny, Dan had never noticed that ritual of Rankin’s before. Ed grunted without further reply and turned to assist with moving Alva’s body into the bag. Dan watched dispassionately, noting how Alva remained somewhat pliable. Less than three hours since she’d died then. “Look natural to you?” he asked Rankin.
“Given her age and some of the indications, probably a heart attack. I’ll do a few tests back at the morgue. Not a full-out autopsy, but just something to tell her next of kin, if she has any. And for the death certificate.”
Dan nodded. Whitley and Green returned, the latter shaking his head. “No photos,” he said. “Not a one. A basket full of bills, some marked paid, others…well, not. Could be something in the attic. We didn’t go up there. The house didn’t look disturbed. How much do you want us to dig?”
Dan’s gaze followed the slow pull of the zipper on the heavy black bag. “Before we tear the house apart, I’ll ask questions of the neighbors in the morning. Thanks.”
“Kinda sad, having no one,” Green added.
Dan gave the junior officer a curious look. “Agreed.”
“What do you know about her? Alva Mabry,” Green persisted.
Cocking an eyebrow, Dan shrugged. “To most of the residents, Alva was a harmless fortune teller relying more on a practiced formula than any psychic ability. That is, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
From the floor on his knees beside the body bag, Ed raised a hand with forefinger and pinkie extended like a pair of horns. When he saw Dan watching, he muttered, “To ward off the evil eye.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Rankin said. “Enough already.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Dan said. “She’s not going to make any more predictions, no matter how inaccurate.”
“I wouldn’t joke,” Ed said in a warning tone.
“I wasn’t joking.”
Rankin stood and stretched. “I’d bet on natural causes without blinking an eye.”
Before Dan could make a suitable reply, his cell buzzed in his pocket. He pulled out the phone. “Stauffer.”
“Detective, there’s a woman here at the station asking for you.”
Dan’s mind jumped to the owner of the perfume still scenting his shirt. For the sake of propriety, he suppressed a grin. “Who is it, Mac? What’s her name?”
“She won’t give me her name. But I wouldn’t keep her waiting.”
Had to be the perfume owner, but why the hell she’d shown up at the station, he had no idea. Especially at this hour. “Hot?”
“In so many strange but perfect ways,” Mac said.
Snorting, Dan hung up, his heart doing a little dance in his chest. He issued last minute instructions to Green and Whitley and returned to his car with deliberate nonchalance. Once inside, he checked his hair in the rearview mirror. Since making detective, he’d let his hair grow out a little from the close-cropped style he’d worn for years. Sometimes strands stuck out at ridiculous angles, but it all looked reasonably placed for the moment.
Putting the car in gear, he headed for the station. Halfway there, he remembered picking up the Priestess card and his hand flew to his breast pocket. “Crap-freaking-tastic.”
He knew better. Damn it, he knew better. Crime scene or not, no one walked out with material from the location, but Dan had slipped the blasted Tarot card into his shirt. Without conscious thought, sure, but still he’d done something that stupid.
He considered turning the car around but rejected the idea. No point now. It wasn’t like anyone was going to miss it. He’d restore the oversize card to the deck tomorrow.
At the station, he parked and hopped out, feeling somewhat rejuvenated by anticipation of a pleasant interlude with the woman from the bar. He locked the vehicle on the fly as he raced up the steps. Despite the fact he couldn’t remember the scented woman’s name, he found himself recalling certain promising attributes. And if the woman was that anxious to hook up with him that she tracked him down, well, so be it.
Dan let himself in the back door. He slowed his steps in the hallway that led toward the front desk. No need to act like a fool. He rounded the corner at a stroll with his hand in his coat, nodding at the officer on duty. “Mac. Where’d you put her?”
“In your office.”
“Thanks.” Dan strode inside, pretending an intense study of the car keys he’d removed from his pocket. A rustle of cloth greeted him as the woman in question stood. He paused, arranging his features into a look of mild curiosity prior to facing her. When he turned, his heart gave a sharp jolt at the sight of the woman before him. Short, dark hair framed an amazing face and the most striking eyes he had ever seen.
He met her gaze. “Who the hell are you?”