Home > Blood and Fire (Guardian Witch #4)

Blood and Fire (Guardian Witch #4)
Author: Ally Shields

Chapter One

Ari’s long hair whipped in the wind, the pale strands stinging her cheek as she looked down from the cliff top at the scene below. Three cops, two in tan uniforms, huddled around a sprawled figure. She recognized her human partner from his tall frame and fair, curly hair. As usual, Lt. Ryan Foster wore casual jeans. His position as head of the Inter-Community Division (IDC) of the Riverdale Police Department gave him latitude in his attire. His khaki windbreaker jacket, optional on a late March day, was tightly zipped, indicating he’d been there since before the sun came out. Four uniformed officers appeared to be searching the Mississippi River bank, poking among the rocks and sparse weeds.

Ari turned her attention to the dead body lying face up, one masculine hand out flung as if he had sought to grab something to break the downward plunge. The body lay too far out from the bluff for an accidental fall. Had he jumped? Been thrown? From this distance, she couldn’t identify his injuries. Ari sniffed the air. No unusual scents. And yet her witch senses told her something wasn’t normal even for a death scene.

Ryan looked up and waved at her. Ari started down the rocky path, feeling a vague disquiet. The closer she got to the body, the more her magic reacted. Her unease grew to an eerie foreboding, sending quivers across her neck and shoulders by the time she reached the huddled cops. At her nod, the officers stepped aside to give her access. Ari’s nostrils flared.

Black magic. Negative vibes swirled around her. Had the victim been an illicit practitioner, or the target of one?

“Hope I didn’t get you out of bed.” Ryan glanced at her face and handed her a steaming Styrofoam cup. “You look like you could use a pick-me-up.”

After working together several times over the past two years, Ryan knew her habits well. She functioned a whole lot better when running on caffeine. Ari quashed her reaction to the dark vibes, reached for the cup with a steady hand, and mumbled an inattentive “Thanks.” Her green eyes never left the corpse.

Ryan watched in silence as she did her initial assessment.

Human. White male, early forties, full head of sandy brown hair. Tanned, sun-weathered face. Jeans, heavy flannel shirt over a T-shirt, wool socks peeking out of laced hiking boots. No unusual injuries, only the abrasions on his hands and head that were consistent with a fall. “What do we know?”

Ryan’s jacket tightened across his broad shoulders as he shrugged. “Not much. The body was found like this about six o’clock by an early-morning fisherman. Medical examiner says rigor’s set in, so he estimates death occurred sometime around midnight, probably a little before. As usual, Doc’s refused to give a cause of death until he can do the autopsy, but a fall is the obvious conclusion.”

Knowing Ryan couldn’t sense the magic, she threw him a questioning look. “So why did you call me?”

“Olde Town district. Unknown cause of death. My gut, maybe. The cause of death might be too obvious.”

“Smart call.”

“How so?” He frowned at the body. “Did you notice something I missed?”

“Sorcery. Black magic is rolling off him in waves.”

“You don’t say?” Ryan looked at the victim with renewed interest but backed up a half step, as if tainted magic might be contagious. “I thought he was human.”

“He is human. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t attacked by a rogue magic user. Or that he didn’t dabble in things he couldn’t control. Do you know who he is?”

“No. Although his face seems familiar, like I might have seen him somewhere. No wallet or ID on him. I know,” he added, when she made a small sound in her throat, “that’s suspicious by itself. Unless some petty thief found him and relieved him of his identification before our good Samaritan came along.” Ryan waved a hand toward the searchers. “We’re looking for the wallet. If somebody wanted the money and cards, they might have tossed the rest.”

“Did he leave a parked car or truck in the area?”

“A cruiser is looking. So far, nothing. What do you think he was doing out here? Don’t see any fishing or rappelling gear.”

“A trail hiker, maybe. I’d think a tourist would have a camera, although he might have dropped it during…whatever happened. He’s dressed pretty warmly.” She pointed to the wool socks, then looked back up at the cliffs. “More like a caver, but again, we’re missing equipment. He’d need at least a flashlight. I’ll take a look up there. See what I can find.”

Ryan shifted his feet and followed her gaze to the cliff tops. “Let’s hope he wasn’t in the caves. The vampires would raise hell with anyone nosing around, maybe guarantee he didn’t return. They’re damned territorial.”

She shot him an appraising look. “Are you suggesting they threw him off the cliff? More likely, they’d scare him, chase him back to town.”

“Maybe they chased him right off the edge.”

Ari held back a retort. Ryan had come a long way in his thinking about Otherworlders, especially in the time he’d been partnered part-time with a fire witch, but he still had lapses into old thinking. Most humans, out of fear or bias, had ignored supernaturals until they were brought back into the limelight by the McFarland treaties in the 1990s and the Civil Rights Acts, which had set up protections for both communities. Pockets of humanity still clung to the old superstitions. Nevertheless, murder and bloodletting had been outlawed and the practices abandoned by Otherworlders. If a vampire did this, it was a rogue.

But black witchcraft wasn’t a vampire thing.

Ari crouched beside the body. Not as much blood as there should be, raising the question of whether he’d been dead before he went over the edge. This might be a dumpsite. She reached out a hand to touch his face. The instant she made contact, she snatched her hand back. “Bad mojo,” she muttered, rising to stand.

“Don’t go all spooky on me.” Ryan scowled, exhibiting typical human discomfort with the unknown.

“OK, but this death isn’t going to fit into human medical experience.” And for that reason, she intended to confer on the case with her friend Gillian at the Otherworld forensics lab. “Your ME is going to find something internal he can’t explain.”

“Like what?” the cop demanded, his baby blues growing suspicious.

“Oh, crushed organs. Curdled blood.” Her tone was matter-of-fact. “I don’t know the exact form of the attack, but I think our victim was killed by a curse.”

* * *

Ari left Ryan to finish processing the scene and climbed up the cliff path. The fishy smell, so strong on the rocky beach below, was less noticeable up at the top. She stood near the edge of the overlook, estimating the fall distance to the bottom by sight. Close to a hundred and fifty feet. The highest point in the area and a lengthy drop. If he wasn’t dead when he went over, he might have had a heart attack from sheer fright. For sure, his landing would have been fatal, but it would also have caused fresh blood on the rocks below.

She turned away, examining the ground as she walked, looking for shoe prints or recent signs of disturbance. It was mostly rock and kept its secrets well. About thirty feet away, she found and followed a well-beaten hiking trail. It wound around the cliff edge, offering scenic views of the Mississippi River and the high cliffs on the opposite bank, nearly identical to where she stood. Her current path didn’t appear to go anywhere in particular. Bushes, mostly bare, and dried prairie grasses starting to green crowded up to the rocks along the trail’s edge. Whenever she saw a break in the brush, she stepped off the path to look around for anything of interest.

As she turned a bend in the path where she could no longer see the crime scene behind her, she discovered a crevasse in the rocky bluff. It offered her access to a lower ledge, perhaps twenty feet down from the top. She slid on her butt. Landing at the bottom, she looked over the edge. The river waters churned below her, creating strings of foam. If the victim had gone over here, his body would have washed away in the river current. That raised an interesting question. Why was the body on the lower riverbank? Had the killer wanted it found?

She scanned the craggy surface around her. The only directions to go were back up or to burrow farther into the cliff side by entering a rocky ravine created by an upheaval of the earth. Using her hands to lever her way between two rock walls at the narrow opening, she moved deeper into the large fissure. The area widened to seven or eight feet inside and was still open to the sky at the top. The bright sun bounced off the walls, turning the enclosure into a dry sauna. Even the tiny lizard clinging to the rock wall at shoulder height seemed immobilized by the welcome warmth of early spring.

Ari brushed her hands together to remove the dust and pushed her hair behind her ears. Of all the mornings not to have a ponytail tie. As the ravine narrowed again and grew deeper, she climbed through another slit in the rock and immediately smelled dampness. The sun no longer reached the ground, but she could still see well enough. Turning her head to the left, she spied a cave opening hidden in the shadows of a low projection of limestone. Numerous scuffmarks disturbed the sandy dirt that overlaid the rock floor, and she knelt beside them to examine the entrance.

Tight spot. Someone had wanted inside badly enough to crawl on his belly. Not necessarily the victim, but it was a possibility. The marks were recent or they would have been washed away by last weekend’s rain.

She considered following the unknown trespasser, but even with her superior vision, the total darkness of the cave would limit an investigation. Better to return after she gathered the proper equipment and talked with Andreas. The vampires couldn’t object to her intrusion if she had their leader’s approval. Maybe he’d even come with her.

The thought of seeing Andreas brought a frown to her face as she climbed back through the ravine passage. She wasn’t ready to talk to him after last night’s fight. Arrogant bloodsucker. He always thought he had the best…no, the only answer.

At least she didn’t have to worry about him until late afternoon. By the time he was awake, maybe she’d have reached a decision that would make facing him a bit easier.

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