Death was everywhere.
Sophie Turner saw it in everything; it surrounded her.
She saw death walking into her store, Talismans. It hovered over the customers who asked for tarot readings and bought books. She saw it in restaurants, bookstores, subways. Out in the world, it walked along happily eating ice cream. Danced at parties, went to work.
Everyone would die.
Was she the only one who saw it? Or maybe she was never let to forget it. After months of lurking around crime scenes, it was difficult to think of anything else.
Her notoriety since solving her friend Patrice Bledsoe's murder -- which included several television interviews as well as an article that Gabe had published about the event - had made her a known quantity. People who had lost someone, who had seen her on TV or who read about her in the paper called to see if she could help them.
The police didn't call. Hell, no. They couldn't admit to using some ghost-seeing crackpot to solve cases.
Pretty much everyone knew what she'd discovered only six months before: Sophie saw ghosts. More importantly, at least twice, communicating with ghosts through her tarot cards had allowed her to solve two present-day mysteries.
But she was having somewhat of a dry spell, it seemed. Since Patrice's case was solved, not even a wisp of ghostly essence wafted through her life. The media had begun to speculate if she had been a two-ghost wonder. Or worse, that she was a scam artist.
She wasn't wildly popular with the Boston PD. That was, in part, because she'd made them look foolish for making her their prime suspect in Patrice's murder. She'd also broken an engagement with one of their best and finest.
Nonetheless, here she was standing among them. Investigators hovered, draped in black and blue jackets, backs hunched over, faces huddled together as they studied and discussed what they found. Of course, they didn't include her in that discussion.
For a moment, she wondered why she had even come to the scene. Miscommunication in the news had led people to think she could contact any dead relative. No, sorry. Not unless they were murdered - not simply dead - and usually only if the ghost started the conversation. This didn't add to her credibility.
"So, are you finished?" Detective Roger Paris - her ex - interrupted her thoughts.
Roger rubbed his neck, as if she was the pain that planted itself there. For some reason, that made her smile a little. They'd broken their engagement months ago, more or less amicably. He was a homicide detective and she sometimes saw the ghosts of murder victims. An outside observer might think they were a good match, but not so much.
Still, here they were here again, together bearing witness to the death of another poor soul. Sophie had been asked by the family of the girl who died in the fire to come to the scene of the latest arson in order to see if she picked up any vibes.
Sophie didn't really do "vibes" and had politely declined, as she wasn't likely to see their daughter's ghost, which is what they hoped for. One more moment of contact, or some confirmation that Sarah was . . . somewhere. But that wasn't the business that Sophie was in.
To the uninformed, one psychic was the same as another. Empaths, mediums, telepaths, clairvoyants. . .it generally made no difference to the general populace.
To Roger, they were all quacks.
Like most Bostonians, she had been following the news about the recent string of arsons, though there hadn't been any deaths until now. Sarah Knowles, a twenty-five year old graduate student, was the first.
Sophie had been here for an hour, watching and observing. The acrid smell of wet ash and char -- and God knew what else -- was mitigated somewhat by the crisp fall air that seeped through the gaps and holes in the structure that was once Sarah Knowles's home. The fire department had marked off a clear, narrow path that was safe to walk along, and Sophie had been warned very sternly to not step foot outside of it. The hard hat that someone had pushed onto her head was a little too large, and the gloves she wore were bulky, but she played by the rules.
She'd only been allowed inside because Roger had - reluctantly - allowed her to accompany him, since the family requested it. Looking around at loose timbers poking out like bones from the frail, skeletal walls, Sophie walked over to a desk chair where a pink cardigan -- mostly intact, though stained and singed -- still draped over the back. Touching it, she wondered if this was where Sarah sat and worked on her studies.
Sophie was frustrated, blank. She saw nothing that the other people in the room didn't see, and chances were that they saw more. She was starting to feel like a disappointment. To herself, to her ghost-hunting boyfriend, and to the populace at large.
The first time she'd seen a ghost, he'd come to her looking for help. It appeared to be a relatively rare circumstance, her boyfriend Gabe theorized, since the ghost would only be attracted to the scene of a death similar to its own. There were rules to the ether, conditions that had to be met.
"Do you think it was an accident? Maybe the arsonist didn't expect her to be here?" she wondered aloud.
"We're not sure until the autopsy is done," Roger said tersely. "But either way she's just as dead and whoever set this fire is the killer."
Sophie sighed. She couldn't argue with that.
Sarah had been finishing up her graduate degree in Geography with a focus in cartography, or map-making. Her family lived in Worcester, where she had been born and raised. She lived in an off-campus apartment, like many graduate students did. All in all, according to the papers, she seemed like a typical college student who had met a tragic end.
But if Sarah hadn't been murdered, Sophie was wasting everyone's time.
As her thoughts had turned inward, Roger's gaze stayed trained on the scene. He was intensely focused, searching for anything they could have missed. Sophie stemmed the impulse to reach out and put a hand on his arm, to offer some support. He didn't need that from her. She briefly wondered if he was being comforted by someone else these days, but rejected the thought. It was none of her business.
Roger was a good man and a better cop. A so-so Catholic, but enough of one to make her lifestyle intolerable for him. If he'd been able to accept her, her past, her abilities, they'd have been married by now. But that hadn't happened.
"You'll have to clear out soon, so do whatever you have to do," he said, turning away as someone called to him from the other side of the room. Sophie did catch his sleeve this time.
"Thanks, Rog. I appreciate you getting me inside," she said.
He offered a short nod, kept walking. She had no idea why he did help her when he didn't believe in what she did. Maybe for old times' sake. Either way, he was right; she needed to get down to it.
Finding a more or less clear spot on the floor between the rows of tape that marked off the safe path to walk, she pulled her cards out of her pocket. She took the gloves off, even though she was supposed to wear them. She couldn't use her fingers correctly when wearing the bulky leather safety equipment.
Everyone had a theory as to why Sophie hadn't seen any ghosts, including the media. She was starting to develop a newspaper phobia. Sophie figured it would all fade, eventually. Hopefully.
The sudden wealth bestowed upon her by Patrice's estate had only sweetened the pot. Sophie wasn't used to having "assets" equaling several million dollars as well as investments and properties. She tried to be grateful; Patrice had been looking out for her, but it had all opened the window on her life in a way that made her very uncomfortable after years of relative anonymity. The media had rarely been kind to the Turners; the stories and speculation when her family had been killed still stung when she thought about it.
"How's it going?" someone behind her asked, shaking Sophie from her reverie to find a young woman wearing a blue jacket that spelled out FIRE MARSHAL in bold, yellow letters looking at her.
"Not great. You?" Sophie asked.
"Same. This is bad," she said with a sigh.
The young woman was too petite for the bulky coat, blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail that was strung through the back of her blue cap. She was petite, shorter than Sophie, and pretty in a fresh-faced way that made her seem out of place in the ugly scene.
"You're young for a Fire Marshal," Sophie said, thinking she couldn't be older than Sophie's own thirty years.
"I'm not an investigator - yet. In training," she said with an engaging smile. "I'm in my last year of a dual degree program in psychology and chemistry at Northeastern, and I've been studying fire science since I was a kid."
Sophie nodded, unsure what else to say.
"I'm Renny. Who are you?"
"A personal consultant. Sophie Turner."
"For the family? Insurance? Pretty tragic."
"Do you think it's the same person setting the fires?" Sophie asked.
"Well, I'm not really authorized to share my opinions, so this isn't official, but it sure looks like we have a firebug on our hands. We'll do chemical analysis on the accelerants, look for prints, see if there are other commonalities and compare it all against what was collected at the other sites. We don't like to draw conclusions based on visual analysis, especially in a case where there was a fatality. This arsonist hadn't killed anyone before now, so is he changing his pattern, was it someone else, a copy cat? Someone using the fires to hide a murder, if it was a murder? Or was it just a case of her being home at the wrong time? Not that that makes him any less culpable."
Renny's mouth turned down severely, the sadness of the loss and the perplexity of the problem obviously bothering her a great deal.
"I wish I could help," Sophie said.
"Yeah. Me, too. What do you do, exactly?" she asked.
"I'm a psychic."
"Oh, so that explains it."
"I asked one of the guys who you were, and they told me to find out for myself."
"So, are you picking up anything?"
Sophie smiled. It was a nice change, to be met with polite interest instead of skepticism.
"How does it work? What you do, I mean."
"Ideally, I get impressions through tarot cards that give me some insight into a particular person, place, or situation, and sometimes that gives me an idea of what's going. It can also open a sort of communication link with the gho-uh, the other side."
"You mean ghosts? So you could speak to our victim?"
Sophie shook her head in the negative. "The ghosts I see are usually ones from the past. For instance, I never see the victim's ghost, but rather ones that appear at the scene of a death because they were murdered in a similar way. The ghost's murder usually yields clues to the current case. At least, that's how it's worked before. But my insight seems to be on the blink lately, or the ghosts aren't talking."
"Or there is no similar murder?" Renny supplied, catching on quickly.
"Possible, but it's hard to believe no one in this town has been killed in a fire," Sophie said with a shrug.
"Good point. So for you to know anything about this case, you'd need to access a past case - a really, really cold case?" Renny joked, making Sophie laugh.
"Yeah, but I can also read cards to see what's happening on an intuitive level - sometimes that opens the gate, as it were, for the ghost. I haven't had much luck with it lately, though."
"What if you did a reading for me to let me know what I should be focusing on here?" Renny asked, to Sophie surprise.
The young Fire Marshal leaned in. "Believe me, they don't talk to me as much either," she said, nodding to the men behind her. "It's been a hard nut to crack. They're mostly nice, but they don't let me in very easily. My father warned me. It has to be earned, and it takes a long time. He was a firefighter, a Captain, back home. He wasn't happy about my career choice, but fire investigation is all I've ever wanted to do."
"Still a man's world," Sophie said.
"Old habits die hard, and he wanted things easier for me. But I'm willing to do whatever I need to in order to do this job. One professor I had in college told me that you have to open your eyes to everything. Every bit of information can help, even if it seems silly," she said. "No offense."
"If you can give me any information, I'm all ears."
"Well, we can try."
"Do I have to do anything?" Renny asked.
"It will help if we're both focusing on what you need to know."
"If you can get a name and address of the arsonist, that would be good," Renny said with an open grin.
"Probably not that, but maybe we can see if there's a particular thing you could be looking for," Sophie said, feeling more relaxed.
Sophie shuffled, concentrating. How should Renny best focus her efforts? What's most important to know in order to find the person who set this fire?
She laid out the first card.
"Seven of Wands."
In her Morgan-Greer deck, this card showed the image of a man standing before a line of wooden branches planted in the ground before him, choosing one and looking at it with a sense of purpose. Wands represented fire - appropriate - and also creativity, inspiration and energy. The leaves sprouting from the branches represented possibility for growth and opportunity.
"The figure is choosing one wand, a very purposeful selection. It might imply that this fire, the target, or the person, was not random, but is meaningful in some way," Sophie started.
"That's interesting, as the buildings involved in the arsons are not typical," Renny added.
"What do you mean?"
"Arsonists tend to focus on lower rent structures, often empty or abandoned. A few of these arsons were in offices, and one was in a restaurant, but the rest are all residential buildings, typically upper income housing. You see that in individual cases, when someone might be trying to get an insurance payout or has some personal agenda, but these are a really strange collection of targets."
"Well, the card would suggest they are chosen for some very specific reason."
The rich colors on the card, the reds, yellows, oranges symbolized energy, colors representing fire as well, but there was also a strict line between light and dark. The arsonist had clearly crossed that line.
"See how the man's head is in the yellow side of the card?"
"Colors, like everything, are symbolic. The golden yellow here implies all good things - wealth, happiness, courage - so that makes sense in terms of what you're saying about the targets. Maybe he has some problem with wealthy people and is destroying what they have. Perhaps it's the only way he can have those things. The sun is also typically associated with males. He has a sense of purpose. He might feel these people deserve to lose what they have for a specific reason. It could be revenge for something specific, or it might just be something he imagines."
"That's true of a lot of psychopaths. They feel justified in their actions, but they are obviously driven by some very dark impulses. They can justify almost anything. What else?"
"Sevens have rich significance," Sophie continued. "Seven chakras, seven days of the week, seven branches on the tree of life, etc. It's a number of integration, where the spirituality of the three meets the stability and material existence of the four and became one. It's associated with Venus and love, the number of emotions and insight. Seventh heaven. Seven Wonders of the World. In alchemy, there are seven metals associated with seven stages of transformation."
"So you think our arsonist might be acting out of some kind of twisted religious conviction?"
Sophie shook her head. "No. I'm not quite getting that, but the seven is important in some way."
Taking a deep breath, she cleared her mind and kept going. Turning another card, she found herself staring at the Seven of Swords. Another seven.
"Whoa," Renny said, making her smile.
"Indeed. When cards repeat like that, it usually points to a stronger message, one that the reader needs to pay special attention to."
"This seven intensifies the meaning of the first card; he's carrying five swords; five is a turning point and can suggest a moment of conflict. Do I go ahead now that the journey has become difficult, or do I turn around and go back?"
"This card next to the Seven Wands makes me think we're seeing two sides of the individual - someone who puts a good face on for the world, but what they feel inside or what they do behind the scenes is a different matter."
"Like the serial killer who is the neighbor that no one would suspect," Renny added.
A chill worked down Sophie's spine as she nodded in agreement.
"The figure on the card carries several dark swords while not paying any attention to the bright, shining swords planted in the ground. He's had options. He might have not committed any crimes before, or perhaps after a lifetime of making good decisions -- being the man in the Seven Wands - something happened that made him pursue a darker path. Like a trigger."
Renny looked her in the eye. "I shouldn't share this, but that's very close to what the police profilers have been saying."
Sophie appreciated the confirmation. She studied the cards silently for a moment, in tune. The sevens added to fourteen, of course, which reduced to another five, yet another suggestion of a time of transition and difficulty that often accompanied a change in life.
Five elements, five points on a star. Notably, the difference between a pentacle and a pentagram was the direction: the pentacle pointed upward, indicating good energy; the pentagram reversed, an extended point stretching downward, hence its common use in black magic.
As such, the five also represented versatility - things could go either way, or the journey was only halfway finished - the five was the halfway point in the ten numbered minors.
"There've been six fires now - there might be a seventh. Sorry I can't offer anything more specific," Sophie said with a sigh.
"I appreciate the thoughts. It was interesting to see you work," Renny said.
"Thanks. I can keep looking at them. There might be something else in the sevens, something more literal. Could be the month he was born, the number of fires he will eventually set, or it could be more metaphysical. . .hard to say."
"Well, thanks," Renny said, standing. "Every little bit helps. Here's my card," she said, fishing a small blue card out of her pocket.
"Hey Renny," someone called, and they looked at a dark-haired fireman who stood near the doorway. "Finding out if there's a mysterious man in your future?" he said with a waggle of his eyebrows. The other guys chuckled, and Renny turned to face him, hands on her hips.
"Yeah, but he's gonna be a lot taller and better looking than you, Spinella," she said with more attitude than Sophie would have expected, making the other guys laugh harder.
Sophie smiled. "Do you have a minute to show me what you do? How do you make heads or tails of this mess?" she asked Renny, looking around at the burnt interior of the house. "You mentioned looking for finger prints. Wouldn't they just burn away?" she asked.
"You'd think so, but not everything burns in a fire - a common error that many arsonists make is thinking they can cover evidence that way. Even when something is badly charred, there are new methods for lifting latent prints from burned items, from the victim, or from a number of materials that might not have completely burned."
"That's amazing," Sophie said.
"There are all kinds of clues arsonists leave behind, just like at any crime scene. They could leave footprints in the dust or in the accelerants that they use, or they might drop some item or form of personal ID. It's why we have to sift through here very carefully."
"What do you look for?"
"Well, we can tell that he didn't use any explosive charges, since there are no thrown items - everything is more or less in the place it should be. Like this book," she said, indicating a math textbook on a table. "It's burnt, but it never moved from the table. A blast would have sent it flying or disintegrated it."
"So, for some reason, he didn't want to completely demolish the place," Sophie said, drawing a nod from Renny.
"Or, it could simply be that an explosion makes a lot of noise. It draws attention, and it might make it harder for him to get out safely or unseen."
Sophie looked around, trying to imagine what Renny saw.
"So, for instance, nothing is upset, past the wreckage caused by the fire, but the drawers are all closed on the desk, as are the kitchen cupboards. The TV, stereo, and computer are all still here, so maybe whoever set the fire wasn't here to steal anything?"
Renny nodded. "Good call! We also can tell a lot from the burn patterns. Those help us to create the fire profile and the arsonist's signature."
"You see patterns in all of this?"
"Absolutely. You see, in the most basic case, a fire will grow up and out in a vee pattern, like you see here," Renny said, pointing to a section of the wall that was blackened in a very distinct shape. "But not all fire burns that way, depending on the contours of the room, where the air is coming from, the wall surfaces, radiant heat, how fast it's moving, the fuel available, if anything falls that burns in the same area, among other factors."
Sophie looked around at the mess and nodded, though she could see the vee, she had a hard time imagining other patterns.
"You have to be able to imagine what the actual fire looked like to create what's left behind. See this bright circular area on what's left of the ceiling? It's a good indication that the fire in this room started in this spot - it would have given off soot, like you see everywhere else, but then as it grew and burned hotter, it actually burned this area clean."
"I hadn't even noticed it, to be honest. I didn't look up," Sophie said with chagrin.
"In the bedroom, where there was a separate fire set - electrical - you can see the clear pattern on the wall leading back to the corner where it started, almost like an arrow, it widens out from the point of origin - it's pretty amazing," Renny said, clearly excited. "By the time we're done, every inch of this place will have been studied."
"Why is this sweater and desk almost untouched?"
"It's set away from the point of origin, and this big sofa is in between the two. Obviously there was some damage, but my guess would be that the sofa acted like a fire break. It's probably treated with some fire-retardant chemical."
She went on to explain how they could trace the fire back to where it started, and how they could tell what sort of ignition had been used. They both jumped when a voice interrupted them.
"You shouldn't be sharing that information with a civilian, Renny."
Sophie looked past Renny to the big man standing behind her, who looked rather annoyed.
Jack - clearly the man in charge - didn't say anything, but cocked an eyebrow in Sophie's direction.
"Sophie, this is Jack Connelly, my boss. He's the lead investigator. Jack, Sophie is a psychic consultant hired by the family."
Sophie closed her eyes at the perfect openness with which Renny shared the information. She really was green. The Fire Marshal barely disguised his impatience.
"Yeah, I heard. But we have work to do," he said to Renny.
"I've almost completed my observational report, and Sophie's reading was very close to what the profilers came up with," Renny responded.
"Yeah? Who filled you in beforehand?" Jack asked, crossing his arms and staring at Sophie. A few other men had gathered around.
Sophie smiled. Jack was a big, manly man, and he didn't intimidate her one whit.
"No one. Believe me, the law enforcement officials around here don't exactly read me into what's going on," Sophie said, and thought she heard Roger cough somewhere in the background.
"Well, a fire scene is a dangerous place for civilians to be, especially if they're interfering with the investigation," he said.
Sophie took that as her invitation to leave.
"No worries, I was finished here anyway," she said briskly. She turned to thank Renny for the information when her gaze landed on another burn pattern on the wall.
"What's that pattern?" she asked Renny, pointing.
"That burn pattern by the door."
Sophie watched as the shape became brighter, more defined, shining so brightly that she had to squint, but she couldn't look away. Dizziness struck her and her knees buckled slightly.
Strong arms caught her by the elbows, supporting her as she went down. Someone said something to her, but she couldn't be bothered to answer. The bright figure on the wall was burning so intensely, it was consuming all of the air around her. Sophie sucked in hard breaths, panic taking over.
How could you do this. . . ? a voice echoed in her head.
Sophie was infused with cold fear, stark terror. The tremendous guilt.
"Sophie! Snap out of it!" a harsh, loud voice commanded.
It was enough to break the thrall. The light sucked back into the wall so suddenly that it seemed to draw Sophie's energy right along with it. When it was gone, she came close to passing out. Her purse and cards had fallen from her hands as she went limp against whoever was holding her up.
"Get her out into the air." Roger ordered, but when Sophie looked up, it was Jack who was carrying her out and setting her down gently on the cement steps of the building.
He widened her eyes with forefinger and thumb, holding her face carefully with his other hand so she couldn't jerk away, not that she intended to. She was still too stunned by what had happened.
As he checked her out, though, she noticed the wall of big men in blue jackets that circled her - along with Renny, who also knelt by her side, taking her pulse. Renny's hands were ice cold, and Sophie thought she should apologize for giving the young woman a shock, but she couldn't quite find her voice yet. The men shielded her from external view, she realized, as she heard voices beyond them, someone telling people to move along.
"Pupils are normal, pulse is slowing. She's okay, I think," Jack said, backing away, but he kept his hand under her head so it didn't hit the concrete of the step.
Sophie took a breath and pushed herself up. She was wobbly, but she hated lying there with all of these men gathered around, towering over her. As her head cleared, she felt like an idiot.
"I am okay, really," she said, gulping a little as her head swam and her stomach pitched slightly. "I'm so sorry about that."
"You're still pretty pale. What the heck was that?" Renny asked, helping as Sophie pulled herself upright.
Roger flanked her other side, watching her intently, but he kept his hands to himself. Jack looked at her suspiciously. The other men just held their position, inscrutable. Or confused.
"I saw something," Sophie said, her head clearing as excitement built inside of her.
She'd seen something. Or more specifically, someone. Feeling more steady, she almost forgot the men surrounding her as she started to bolt back into the building.
"Where are you going?" Roger asked.
"Where are my cards?"
"You dropped them when you fell, with your purse," Jack said. "One of the guys can--"
Sophie was already gone before he finished. She ran back and saw three cards facing up on the floor where she'd fallen. The Chariot, reversed, The Empress and the Eight of Wands. As she moved them, she saw the eight lay over the exposed Hermit. She clicked a picture with her cell phone to capture the pattern for later.
"You okay?" Jack asked, obviously concerned.
"I have to go. I have to get back to Talismans," she said urgently.
"What did you see?" Renny asked again.
Sophie met Roger's eyes, unsure how to describe what she'd seen.
Roger shook his head. "She saw another damned ghost."
Roger offered to take Sophie back to Tarot Alley, but he was interrupted by a phone call. To Sophie's relief, she ended up driving back with Jack instead.
Sophie had sort of hoped Renny would be accompanying them, but no such luck. She had her own car. Sophie offered to take the T, her usual mode of transport, but the Jack insisted that she shouldn't be riding the train. She didn't argue; it was faster to have him drive her back, anyway.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked, breaking the silence.
"I am. It was just. . .it's been a while," she admitted. "I forgot how they can sneak up on me like that, and it's not usually pleasant."
In fact, she had experienced any number of physical discomforts when she saw the ghosts, most commonly nausea and splitting headaches. So this had been par for the course, basically. Jack didn't comment, but just watched the road. Sophie was okay with that, preferring to sit and think through what had happened, remembering details.
It wasn't long before they pulled up in front of Talismans. When she turned to thank Marshal Connelly for the ride, she was surprised to see him step out of the car, too.
"I'll walk you in."
"That's not necessary," she objected, eager to get to Gabe and tell him about this new development.
"No problem seeing you inside," he insisted, and Sophie sighed. She knew Jack's type and didn't argue.
"Sarah Knowles was murdered," she said, unable to keep that fact to herself anymore.
"We know that."
"I mean, I think she was probably killed or knocked out before the fire was set. It wasn't an accident. Whoever set the fire killed her, probably before it was ignited."
Jack eyed her suspiciously. "You have an inside man in the ME's office?"
"Roger told me they are still waiting on results from the autopsy, but I bet you'll find that she was probably dead before the fire started."
"That kind of claim can land you in an interrogation room if you're right."
Sophie coughed a laugh. "Yeah, been there."
"And how is it you're so certain about this?"
"I only see ghosts at the scenes of murder victims. Not accidental or natural - this was outright murder."
Jack seemed consternated at her response, and Sophie was quite sure she was not a suspect in this murder. Still, someone was guilty, and her ghost might be able to show her who it was. One thing she now knew to be true was that both of these victims - Sarah and the ghost -- were intimately tied somehow, and it was up to her to find out what that connection was. They both needed justice.
While the regular authorities were looking out for Sarah, Sophie was the only one who could help her ghost. Job one was finding out more about the spirit that had knocked her on her ass back at the scene. Well, job two. Job one was telling her local ghost-expert, Gabe, what had happened.
Walking to the door, Sophie saw Jack's eyes move over the front of the store. At first, she'd thought she would rebuild the place as close to the original store as possible - small, simple and homey -- but the new designer's ideas were good. What had once been a small, cramped and rather dark entryway to her old tarot parlor now shone with warm, inviting light. Two large windows on either side of the door displayed current items for sale, new books and an events calendar. Gabe did book signings at the store - always a draw - and Sophie and other Tarot Alley merchants had started offering monthly lectures on various psychic issues.
There was a new cobblestone walk installed in front of the door where the old had been worn down and pitted by weather and use. This led to a new door that provided a gleaming welcome; like the windows, it was made from heavy security glass surrounded by a brass and wood frame, the store's name printed across in gold, red and brown lettering.
Inside, Sophie searched the equally well-lit, spacious two levels, the second accessed by a lovely, broad spiral staircase. Gabe was nowhere in sight.
The architect, a friend of Patrice's, had somehow managed to take their original space and quadruple it. Polished wood floors were perfect and accented the original brick well. He'd kept - at Sophie's insistence -- the original brick walls, as well as the original counter and cash register.
For one thing, she didn't need anyone poking around the behind the brick where she had discovered yet another entry to some forgotten about tunnels, and where she had discovered her Aunt Doris's code books.
They just looked nice. The brick was as old as Tarot Alley, and probably older. The area had been an occult center since Boston had stopped punishing its psychically inclined citizens by burning them at the stake. Most of those people had gravitated to this spot, setting up shops and living here, citing some particular, magical energy. Sophie wasn't sure if there was magic here or not, but it was part of the history of the place and good for business.
She'd also grown up at the counter, talking to customers and ringing up sales since she was a kid, working alongside her father and aunt. No way could she let anyone demolish it. The older pieces somehow fit in perfectly, adding some texture and a sense of age and grace to the otherwise modern reconstruction. It reminded her that this was home.
The second floor had once been her aunt's apartment, and Sophie had lived there, as well. Now it was now where they had their Reiki therapy rooms and their offices - hers, Margaret's and Gabe's. Since losing the apartment, Sophie lived with Claire, though she sometimes stayed with Mags. More often, recently, she stayed at Gabe's condo in Newton. There weren't too many of her belongings left after the fire, most of them in boxes stored in Talismans's backroom.
Sophie had been meaning to buy a place of her own, but she'd been so busy with the store that she'd never really gotten around to it. In general, she tried to avoid thinking too much about her new wealth. It was hard to enjoy it when it came at such a heavy price, and being at the store with her friends and Gabe made her feel less alone.
So, Sophie lived much the way she had before she'd inherited millions - off of her paycheck from the store's profits and through the grace of her friends. They didn't seem to mind.
"This is a really great space," Jack said, looking around, surprising her.
"Thanks," Sophie said, spotting Gabe's door open. "Um, can you hold on for a sec? Feel free to look around. There's a tea and coffee bar over there. Help yourself," she said, heading for the stairs.
There was an elevator in the back for disabled patrons, but Sophie always took the stairs. It was good exercise, especially for her bad knee. She was excited to tell Gabe about what happened and rushed to his office, only to find it empty.
Disappointment pinched, though she knew it was unreasonable. She'd forgotten that he had classes this afternoon. After being spoiled by having him around and working closely with him during the summer, it had been harder to lose so much time with him once the semester started. He was also working on some demanding research. He still taught psychology at Northeastern - where they had met when he helped her remember what had happened to her family. The school was not as happy about his ghost-hunting sideline, but they tended to let it go mainly because of the media attention and money his bestselling books on the subject brought in.
Still, they didn't want him operating out of the university, so he based his ghost-hunting business here in Talismans, but during the semester, understandably, his teaching took over more of this time.
Still, in her heart-of-hearts, Sophie knew her secret fear was that Gabe was only really interested in her when she was seeing ghosts, and she hadn't seen one for a long time. Was it part of her relief to have finally contacted one, that Gabe would be more interested in her again, too?
That was absurd, she said to herself for the millionth time. She knew what a busy semester was like, and it was almost the end of the semester.
But sometimes the little, dark voices that taunted her made her wonder. She told them to shut up at the moment. Sophie would catch him at home and tell him about the ghost then. They could celebrate and discuss her ghost sighting over dinner.
As she walked to the top of the stairs, Sophie saw that Jack was still there, but he wasn't alone.
Margaret was talking to him and looking quite animated. Jack, similarly, looked captivated by whatever she was saying. Gone was the surly, skeptical look as he laughed at something Mags said. Mags was holding a box of sparking snowflakes, carrying it to the back to join the other similar boxes she had accumulated for when they changed the fall décor over to winter. They had both decided to decorate the store according to season, rather than holiday. That way, they did not show a preference for any religion or belief system in particular but could still decorate the store at the change of each season.
Mags had been making sparkly, hand-cut cardboard snowflakes for weeks in preparation. She'd convinced Sophie to help make the paper ones, something Sophie hadn't done since she was a kid. It had been fun, regardless of the fact that glitter had been attached to everything she owned for weeks now.
"More snowflakes?" Sophie said, eyeing the box.
"It's going to be a winter wonderland in here," Mags said. "Maybe we'll even switch out the coffee for hot chocolate."
"Bite your tongue," Sophie said, smiling at them both.
Jack looked completely different, his face relaxed, his eyes warm with interest as he watched Mags.
"Was Gabe here earlier?" Sophie asked Mags.
"He was, just for a minute. He pretty much ran in and out, like he does a lot lately."
"Okay, I'll talk to him tonight. I can see you met Mags, uh, Margaret," she said to Jack.
Jack smiled, his eyes lighting with interest on Margaret again. "I have indeed."
"I was just telling Jack how some Reiki sessions with me could balance out some of his energy, reduce the stress of his job and probably help with his investigations," she said, never taking her catlike green eyes from Jack's handsome face.
Sophie had to stifle a grin. Her friend was never shy about her thoughts, wants and desires. It was clear she wanted and desired Jack Connelly. Too bad Jack was not likely to buy what Mags was selling.
Sophie smiled, crossing her arms and facing Jack. "You really should have your energy balanced, Jack," she said, daring him. "Mags is the best."
He smiled, and almost seemed to consider it. Not the reaction she was expecting. But then he shook his head.
"I'll pass for now. Energy-balancing and ghost-sighting isn't exactly my thing, but if I wouldn't mind buying you dinner," he said to Mags.
"Wait, what ghost sighting? You saw a ghost?" Mags said, wide-eyed with all of her attention on Sophie.
"Yeah, I did," Sophie said, grinning. "It literally knocked me on my butt."
Mags leapt across the space between them, nearly tackling Sophie in a hug.
"I knew it would happen again. You just had to heal and let things balance out," she said excitedly. "Tell me all about it."
Some of Sophie's disappointment at Gabe's absence lifted. She didn't know what she would do without Mags. Her friend had always been a strong source of support. Mags was also co-owner of the store, now, as well. Mags and Sophie's other friend Claire were as close as Sophie could imagine to having sisters. Not that she had seen much of Claire lately, either, except at the yoga class that Claire had talked them all into taking.
"I'd like to hear more, too," Jack said, sounding sincere. "Maybe we could all have dinner?" he proposed to them both, though his eyes were on Margaret.
"Oh, that's a terrific idea!" Mags exclaimed.
Sophie watched the roses bloom in her friend's porcelain cheeks and tried not to roll her eyes. It was amazing how open-minded Jack had suddenly become when looking at her pretty friend.
"Why don't you two go ahead. I don't know what's going on with Gabe," Sophie said, trying to ignore Mags mouthing pleasepleaseplease from behind Jack.
Sophie relented. "Or maybe we can go. But it's another hour until Laura comes in, and I'd have to get hold of Gabe. Why don't we meet you somewhere?"
Margaret's eyes brightened. "Perfect. Where?"
"I know a great little place down on the water. It's a firefighter hang out, but they have good food," Jack said, giving them the address as they all agreed. "I have to get back to the office, but I can meet you all there around seven?"
"Sounds perfect," Mags said again.
Jack and Mags continued chatting as Sophie split off, suddenly feeling like a third wheel. Mags walked Jack to the door, and Sophie heard her telling him that she'd love to show him her Reiki room and do a demonstration. If he wanted.
Right. Jack was never going to know what hit him.
Sophie turned her attention to work-related issues, noting the day's sales, the schedule and new reading appointments that had been made. It wasn't great; there had been some cancelations, and she didn't see any new sign-ups. That bothered her. She'd hoped their new look would attract more clientele, but so far that hadn't really been the case. She didn't know if some recent negative media coverage was to blame, but hoped they saw an upswing for the holidays.
Gabe had wanted her to give up reading altogether so that she could focus her energy on her tarot-medium work, but Sophie could never stop working and reading at Talismans. It was her connection to her family, and it was how she kept her reading skills sharp.
As a compromise, they had hired Laura, an older woman who'd retired from a corporate position but who enjoyed working part-time. She was a competent manager in Sophie's absence, and she was also learning to read the cards, but it was a skill that took time to develop. She could hardly take Sophie's place, and many of their customers only wanted Sophie to read for them, several of them having been her clients for over a decade.
Laura wasn't a psychic, but psychic ability wasn't necessary to read tarot cards; sensitivity to context, to images, and to the questions that a person needed to explore was all that was required. Sophie had read for years with no psychic ability at all, and even now, she didn't depend on any except when she read for the dead. Laura was showing promise, and for Sophie, it was nice to have her evenings free.
"Looks like we have a double date," Mags said, jumping up and down.
"I guess we do," she agreed.
"He's soooo cute," Mags said, her eyes lit up.
Cute wasn't exactly how Sophie thought of burly, rugged Jack Connelly, but she went along with Mags just for fun.
Mags leaned over the counter. "So, tell me more about the ghost."
Sophie told her what happened at the crime scene and pulled her phone out, showing Mags the cards that had come up when she'd dropped them upon seeing the ghost.
"The Empress. Interesting. And the Hermit is always such a powerful, peaceful card. Hard to imagine how these have anything to do with arson or murder."
"Well, they are meaningful to the ghost. I hope I can find out how."
She and Mags talked for a few more minutes before getting back to work. Puttering happily around the shop until Laura arrived, Sophie was much more relaxed and looking forward to dinner as she left Laura with some instructions for the evening and went to meet Mags, who'd gone to get her car. She'd called Gabe, who agreed to meet them, but it would be faster for Sophie to change at Margaret's apartment and ride with her.
Sophie walked out to the street and immediately was reminded of the price for dropping her guard. A woman was suddenly standing in front of her, notebook in hand.
Marlene Walker, intrepid reporter.
She was the new columnist for the biggest newspaper in Boston, The Sphere, investigating all things paranormal, supernatural or associated with New Age lifestyle. The slant of the columns was always negative, at least since Marlene had taken over.
In Sophie's opinion, there was nothing new about New Age - most such practices, including tarot reading - were very, very old. Tarot Alley had been around for over one hundred years, and had been relatively ignored by the media until now. Sophie knew she had been the catalyst for this recent attention.
Marlene was young, ambitious and clearly set on making her mark by walking all over Sophie's life. Marlene's articles had been one of the strongest sources of speculation about whether Sophie was "for real" or not. A few years younger than Sophie, the woman was a shark in reporter's clothing.
"Ms. Turner. Did you see the ghost of Sarah Knowles today? Can you tell us anything she said? Do you have any leads on the arsons?"
"No comment," Sophie said tiredly and tried to walk past.
"Ms. Turner . . . Sophie," Marlene, trying to sound friendlier, though her green eyes were still hawkish. "Surely you want people to know if you are successfully working another case? That the first ghost-sightings you experienced weren't a glitch or a fraud?"
"People only think that because that's what you keep telling them, even though you weren't here at the time," Sophie said.
"I carefully reviewed the facts of the case. There was never any proof of any ghostly sightings or psychic ability. The killer was caught, but it's only on your word that your ghosts or your tarot reading revealed the truth. Clearly, that could be something you have forwarded to draw attention to the rebuilding of your business." She said the last word as if calling Sophie's store a business was a stretch.
Sophie took a deep breath - the advice of her yoga instructor - and let it out very, very slowly. Her hand had slid into her pocket and she pulled out a deck of cards.
She smiled at Marlene Walker. "How about something that might prove I'm not a fraud?"
The reporter's smile was so condescending. "Please. A give and take relationship with the press might be more productive than avoiding us."
Mags wasn't here yet, so Sophie had a minute and sat on the bench, inviting Marlene to sit across from her. "How about we take a look into your life, Ms. Walker, since you've been so insistent about looking into mine?"
Marlene looked surprised and a little wary.
Sophie met her eyes directly, shuffling the cards. "Who are you, Marlene Walker, and what do you most need to know right now?"
"This is ridiculous. I thought you were-"
Sophie peeled off a card and set it between them before the woman could say anything more.
"The Eight of Swords," Sophie said. "Feeling trapped by something, Marlene? Helpless? Bound by your situation?"
The reporter didn't respond, but her lips flattened in displeasure.
"Let's see what another card tells us," Sophie said.
She dealt The Devil, which made her pause as she studied the two cards.
"Who's bothering you, Marlene?"
"You don't know what you're talking about," the woman said, but Sophie could tell by the tone of her voice and the look in her eyes that she'd hit a nerve.
"Maybe not, but these cards indicate a strong sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. You might feel trapped in a situation, maybe a bad relationship of some sort? Perhaps with someone who's trying to control you? Make you do things you don't want to do? Do you feel like there's nowhere to go?"
"You need to stop, right now."
"Look at this eight," Sophie said, picking up the card and making Marlene look at it. "See how all the swords are around her, but loosely? The cage is not as tight as she thinks - all she has to do is remove the blindfold. And the house, here on the hill? Help at close at hand - if you try, you can get out of whatever this situation is," Sophie said, her ire with the reporter falling away as she realized the seriousness of the cards.
Mags parked by the curb as Sophie quickly dealt one more card. "Four of Wands," she said with relief. "They're happy in this card. This is a good card, Marlene. This is what you could have if you find a way out of whatever situation you're in, but it's your choice. You can't do it alone," Sophie said gently. "I'm willing to listen, if you need someone to do that."
Marlene stared at the cards and then looked up at Sophie, her eyes dark, wide and furious. "Is this how you hook people in? Play on their fears and insecurities? Now I know exactly how low you'll go, Ms. Turner, in trying to manipulate people to your own ends," the reporter said, her voice and hands shaking. "But this time it's going to backfire on you."
Marlene stood up and walked away, but as she did so, her bag caught on the side of the bench, spilling papers and photos onto the walk. Sophie recognized several of herself and then a few of the others really caught her attention. She recognized the scenes right away.
"You've been following the fires. These are pictures of the arsons. You were at the scene of each one."
Marlene was still scurrying after papers as they blew along the walk, and Sophie realized that the reporter had been at every crime scene, photographing each fire. Why? Marlene didn't cover the crime beat.
"Marlene, why are you so interested in these fires?"
The woman, harried and angry, snatched the pictures from her hand. "I'm a reporter, that's why. And none of this is any of your business," she snapped before she turned and stomped away.
Sophie watched her, but instead of righteous indignation, she saw the woman's fear in her stride, as if she was practically running. Fleeing the truth. But what truth?
Mags beeped and Sophie made her way to the car.
"What was that about?" Mags asked, looking back at Marlene, then at Sophie.
"That reporter. She's the one who writes the column," Sophie said, knowing that Mags would know exactly what they meant. Mags had been burning the columns in a little pagan ritual every time they came out to try to disperse some of the negative energy from them.
"She was literally in my face when I walked out of the store. I finally had enough and decided to turn the tables on her, but I might have made a mistake," Sophie said with a sigh, regretting her rashness as she described what happened to Mags.
"Your temper does get the better of you sometimes, my friend, but you're human and everyone has their limits. It sounds like that woman has some serious troubles. I would steer clear of her," Margaret warned.
"She needs help," Sophie said, ashamed for using her skill as a weapon to lash out and pry where she shouldn't have. She knew better. But she had, and now, she was very concerned about Marlene Walker. She couldn't put the genie back in the bottle, as it were. "But even weirder, she was at all of the fires. She had pictures of them all."
While the confrontation might have achieved her goal to get the reporter off her back - though she doubted it -- ironically, Sophie felt the need to contact the woman now, to try to apologize and continue their conversation.
Suddenly, her anticipation for the evening had drastically diminished and she wanted to go home.
"Maybe it was an assignment, who knows? Are you okay?" Mags asked, catching her mood.
"I'm tired. Maybe I should-"
Mags hand was on her arm, giving a comforting squeeze. "Sophie, let it go. We're meeting two gorgeous men in an hour, and you need to relax. It's been a tough day, and whatever is going on in that reporter's life, there's nothing you can do about it tonight."
Sophie nodded, shaking it off. Mags was right. Closing her eyes, she tried to relax as they made their way south towards Margaret's apartment. Still, when she did, all she could see was the burnt outline of the ghostly figure on the dark wall of her eyelids, and Marlene Walker's angry, fearful gaze staring back.