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Deadly Curiosities
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Deadly Curiosities

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Author: Gail Z. Martin
Publisher: Solaris, 2014
Series: Deadly Curiosities: Book 1

1. Deadly Curiosities
2. Vendetta

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Demons
Psychic Abilities
Urban Fantasy
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Synopsis

Welcome to Trifles & Folly, a store with a dark secret. Proprietor Cassidy Kincaide continues a family tradition begun in 1670 - acquiring and neutralizing dangerous supernatural items. It's the perfect job for Cassidy, whose psychic gift lets her touch an object and know its history. Together with her business partner Sorren, a 500-year-old vampire and former jewel thief, Cassidy makes it her business to get infernal objects off the market.

When a trip to a haunted hotel unearths a statue steeped in malevolent power, and a string of murders draws a trail to the abandoned old Navy yard, Cassidy and Sorren discover a diabolical plot to unleash a supernatural onslaught on their city.

It's time for Kincaide and her team to get rid of these Deadly Curiosities before the bodies start piling up.


Excerpt

"You know each other?" Rebecca said, confused. She looked from me to Teag and back again, as Anthony walked over and gave me a hug.

I chuckled, realizing I'd been set up. "Teag and I work together at the shop, and Anthony is a dear friend," I said.

"We're your back-up," Teag explained, pressing a glass of wine into my hand. "I told Anthony about the email you got and about you coming here by yourself--"

"And I asked what he thought about getting away for a couple of evenings," Anthony finished the sentence. He grinned broadly, flashing me a smile that no doubt was part of his stellar ability to woo juries and broker successful contract negotiations. Usually, I saw Anthony in a suit looking like he had just stepped off the cover of a men's fashion magazine. Teag, with his skater-boy hair and jeans was Rolling Stone to Anthony's G.Q.

Tonight, Anthony had traded in a suit and tie for a collared polo shirt and crisp khakis over boat shoes, a popular upscale Charleston look. Other than changing into a fresh t-shirt from the one he had worn all day at the shop, Teag looked the same as he had a couple of hours earlier. They made a cute couple.

"Honestly, Cassidy, I didn't think you should tackle this by yourself," Teag said.

Rebecca looked abashed. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to cause a problem."

I patted her arm. "You haven't. We sold you the items. So we've got a responsibility to figure out what's going on."

She put on her game face and managed a smile. "What can I do to help?"

"You've already given me the tour, and gotten me thinking," I said. I gave her my best gung-ho smile. "We'll take it from here. Why don't you go up to your room if you feel safe there and stay put for the night?"

Rebecca looked relieved. Now that I'd had time to study her features, I could see that there were dark circles under her eyes. If living in a newly-haunted house wasn't wearing her down, then worrying about the ghosts' impact on her livelihood certainly couldn't help, especially if the haunts were becoming more active--and dangerous.

Teag and Anthony and I hung out in the dining room enjoying our wine and the plate of appetizers while Rebecca cleaned up the kitchen and made a tray to carry up to her room. At my request, she also put on a fresh pot of coffee, since it was likely to be a long night, and set out cups. We promised to rinse out our wine glasses and put the hors d'oeuvres plate back in the kitchen and bade Rebecca good night.

"I can't believe you two came to help me out," I said when Rebecca was gone.

Teag put his hands on his hips and cocked his head, giving me his best stern schoolteacher look. "Really? After what's been going on, you think I'm going to let you come to a whole house full of 'spookies' by yourself? If the haints don't scare Rebecca, seeing you go into a dead faint with one of your visions is sure to!"

I had to smile. 'Haints' was a local term for ghost, and it even had its own paint color, 'haint blue', named after the vivid shade some people painted their doors to keep away nasty spirits. It wasn't a word in Teag's usual vocabulary, and I knew he said it to lighten the mood.

"I even brought an extra kit, just in case," Teag said, and nodded toward the leather messenger bag he had placed next to the door. I knew it would contain everything that was in my own pack upstairs in my room.

Our 'kit' for investigating questionable objects included several common, but supernaturally powerful items: salt, for protection; chalk, sometimes needed to mark an area to protect or avoid; charcoal, a small bundle of sage, and an abalone shell, to cleanse an area after a working. We usually carried several other useful items in our kit, including a wind-up flashlight (supernatural creatures tend to wreck havoc on batteries), and a pouch with dried fennel, hyssop, marigold, and rue, also useful for banishing negative energy. Just for good measure, we usually also threw in a couple of pieces of turquoise, agate, and onyx.

"I even made sure Anthony and I had our 'lucky' agate stones with us," Teag said with a grin, and held up a smooth polished small agate disk which he had hidden in his pocket. "We're ready."

"What can we do to help, Cassidy?" Practical as always, Anthony was the perfect foil to Teag's unbridled enthusiasm. "Short of breaking and entering, I'm with you."

I chuckled, knowing that with Anthony's family and legal connections, he could probably get away with B&E in this town, but I wasn't going to ask that of him. "Well," I said. "We're already inside, so no breaking necessary," I said.

"I thought I'd start by trying to 'read' the objects room by room," I said.

"After that, I figured on a stake-out to see some of this ghostly activity. Something changed these pieces. If we can figure out what made the difference, we should be able to make it stop."

Anthony frowned. "Can't we just remove the objects?"

I shook my head. "Now that it's started, I don't think just taking the pieces away is going to make it stop." Briefly, I filled them in on what Rebecca had told me earlier in the day, and the sightings of the man with the broad-brimmed hat. Teag glanced out of the front windows, but no one was in sight.

"Let's go," Teag said, finishing his wine and setting the glass aside.

Touching the wood of the table and sideboard gave me a fleeting image of dinners and happy conversation. I reached out to touch the tea set, but got only a vague, pleasant aura and the distant scent of Earl Gray. "It's got some resonance, but the energy is positive."

I bent down and opened the doors below the sideboard. "Would you please pull out that tablecloth?"

Anthony carefully removed the folded tablecloth and set the bundle on the mahogany dining table. "I recognize that," Teag said. "I still don't get any vibes of magic woven or embroidered into the piece."

I moved to touch the tablecloth, but Anthony pulled out a chair for me. "Why don't you sit down to handle the objects, Cassidy?" he said, in his best lawyer-advisory tone. First, I let my hand rest on the wood of the table itself. As with the sideboard, the fleeting images were of happy times, making me feel safe and reassured. I took a deep breath and laid my right hand on the tablecloth, then closed my eyes and waited for the show to start.

It didn't take long. There were images of family gatherings, mostly happy, crammed together like a super-fast slide show. I saw an elderly man sitting at the head of a table set for Thanksgiving dinner. Relatives of all ages were busily talking and laughing. At the other end of the table sat a tall, handsome woman with high cheekbones and intelligent, dark eyes. She was presiding over the meal with quiet pride. Judging from the clothing, the year was around 1940.

The images shifted so fast I grabbed at the table to steady myself. I saw the older man straighten suddenly, saw him clutch his chest in pain, trying to call out. Family members rushed from their places to help him out of his chair, easing him to the floor as the tall woman ran to his side and held his hand. Another spasm of pain wracked the man's body and he wheezed, then fell still. Dinner sat forgotten, and the celebration turned to mourning.

I sensed the passage of time in the vision as the images blurred like someone had hit fast-forward. The table with its holiday covering now hosted a funeral dinner for the mourners.

The next image was the strongest. The dining room was dark, the mourners had gone, and the tall woman sat in her seat at the table, looking down to the empty seat at the end. I could feel her heart breaking. And I knew what she was going to do next.

"No," I whispered. "Don't." But the actions had been taken long before I was born, and nothing would change them now. I watched in horror as the woman left the room and returned with a stout length of rope. She slipped off her shoes and then climbed onto the table, looping one end of the rope over the heavy chandelier. She had already fashioned a noose. Eyes fixed on the empty seat at the end of the table, she took a breath, closed her eyes, and stepped into oblivion.

I came back to myself lying on the floor, the tablecloth clutched in my hands, gasping for breath. Teag was kneeling next to me, and Anthony was staring at both Teag and I as if we had lost our minds.

"This is what the two of you do for a living?" he asked, wide-eyed.

Teag had the good grace to give a nervous laugh. "Not always. But yeah, sometimes."

He helped me sit up. It took me a moment before I could speak. "I think Mrs. Butler left out some of the story," Teag and Anthony helped me up, and I took a deep breath. "The linens have a powerful psychic imprint," I said, and recounted what I had seen. "I think the other woman is old Mrs. Harrison, the wife of the man who built this house," I ended. "But we still don't know what made the ghosts show up now."

Teag sprinkled a few grains of salt onto the tablecloth. The salt wouldn't damage the fabric, but it would put a damper on the negative energy. That should help us narrow down which piece or pieces were the real troublemakers.

Anthony watched as Teag sprinkled the salt. "Why don't you do whatever you're doing before Cassidy touches something? It would certainly spare her a lot of distress."

"The problem is, if we dampen the energy, we don't really know what we're dealing with," Teag explained. "The only time we put out the protective materials in advance is if the item has been known to actually harm someone."

Nothing else in the dining room had any hint of supernatural power, so we headed to the entranceway. I touched paintings, doilies, the antique rug, and a set of candlesticks and got nothing, but when my fingers skimmed the funeral vase, images lit up in my mind.

I heard women weeping and men clearing their throats in grief. I saw the vase, and two small coffins in a sparse parlor. The weight of the onlookers' sorrow fell heavy on my heart, and I began to sob. Teag gently reached over and separated my hand from the vase and the vision winked out.

I dragged my sleeve across my eyes. Anthony handed me a tissue. "I saw the funerals," I said when I could speak again, with a nod to Teag. "It's a strong vision, but not powerful enough to energize the whole place." Teag dropped a bit of charcoal into the vase.

The parlor held no 'sparklies' or 'spookies' at all. Even the vintage couch was completely mundane. It was a relief after the last two rooms, and gave me a little break to catch my breath. I suspected that the upstairs would be exciting, and not in a good way.

Since I had already checked out the items in my room, we went to Teag and Anthony's room.

I received some images from touching the bedframe, and blushed. The bedset resonated with sensual satisfaction, and I guessed it had witnessed some memorable reunions in its time. Embarrassing, yes. Dangerous, no. Teag must have guessed as much from the way my face reddened, because he chuckled but did not ask questions. I touched the other objects in the room and got 'sparks' from a few of them--brief, fragmentary images, most of which were positive. Nothing in this room held bad mojo.

I knew we weren't going to be as lucky with the next room. "Let's do the sad room first," I said. I was putting off the mirror room.

With more confidence than I felt, I swung the door open. This room had an impressive--and expensive--suite of furniture. Once again, I started with the bed, but this time, there were no strong emotions at all. The quilt gave snapshots of ordinary lives, nothing dramatic or tragic.

None of the rest of the bedroom furniture gave up any secrets to my touch, so I turned my attention to the decorations. The still life paintings had no resonance at all, nor did the silver bowl on the mantel or the elegant hurricane lamp. But the silver picture frames drew me, filling me with a sadness beyond words even before I touched them.

A handsome young man and pretty young woman looked back at me from the photographs. I guessed that they were in their late teens or early twenties. They looked happy and full of life, dressed in their best go-to-meeting finery.

"I'm going to sit down," I announced. "I think this is going to be intense." I settled into one of the chairs by the fireplace, and Teag brought the frames to me. Mustering my courage, I let him place the frames on my open palms.

Black despair washed over me, unreasoning and limitless. The world around me dimmed. Nothing intruded on the grief. Voices called to me, but I could barely hear them. If I were still breathing and my heart still beat, it happened without my knowing it. I felt as dead as my babies, as cold as their pale skin, lifeless as their still bodies.

My babies? A rational corner of my mind argued, but I was too far gone to notice. If the grief of the old woman's ghost in the dining room had driven her to suicide, this overwhelming sorrow led to madness. Dimly, I heard a woman screaming as the picture frame tumbled from my hands...

"Cassidy! Cassidy, snap out of it!" Teag's voice sounded from a long way away. I recognized the voice, but in my grief, I lacked the power follow it. I was being swept away on a dark, cold tide that was sure to draw me under.

Icy water hit my face and I came up sputtering. "What the hell was that?" I asked, coming back to myself in a rush.

"Sorry," Anthony said, giving me his most endearing smile. "You were screaming. It seemed like the fastest way to bring you back."

I shook my hair like a wet dog and looked down at my shirt which was now covered with water spots. Anthony handed me a towel, and I dried off, trying to regain a shred of my dignity. "Well, I was right. It was intense," I said ruefully.

"I think I've found something," Anthony said. He was kneeling beside the picture frame where it had fallen. The shock had broken the glass, and knocked the backing off the frames. I winced, sorry that I had damaged the antique. But Anthony's attention was on something behind the pictures, and I watched as he gingerly teased out a two completely different photographs underneath the frame's backing.

"That might explain it," Teag said, coming around to stand behind Anthony and looking down on the new photos.

"Let me see!" I said, turning in my chair. Anthony ducked, remaining beyond my reach.

"No way! I'll hold them up for you, but I'm not handing them over," Anthony said.

I caught my breath. "Those are death pictures," I said softly. I stared at the antique prints. In the years after the Civil War, when photography was still new, family pictures were an expensive luxury. Sometimes, the only photo that might be taken was after death. Ghoulish as the thought was to modern sensibilities, Victorians did not find the idea shocking or disturbing, and a whole photographic specialty sprang up to give bereaved families a memento of their lost loved ones.

Memento mori, I thought. It means, 'Remember death'.

The photos that had fallen out were of the same man and woman I had seen in the frames, perhaps a little older, wearing the same clothing, but with a crucial difference. They were posed in lifelike positions, seated upright in high backed chairs, eyes open and hands clasped on their laps. A second look revealed an unnatural stiffness in the limbs, and that the 'eyes' had been painted onto closed eyelids. They were very definitely dead.

I swallowed hard. Was it a mother's grief I felt? It was clear to me that the deaths of these two young people had caused a third tragedy, the complete breakdown of someone who loved them more than life itself.

"We don't have to finish this all in one night," Teag said quietly. He had gone to the door, to reassure Rebecca that all was well, and a moment later, she came back with a glass of sweet iced tea before she returned to her upstairs hideaway.

I drank the sweet tea with gusto. In Charleston, sweet tea is brewed strong and loaded with sugar. It was just what I needed. While I drank the tea, Teag set the picture frames image side down on the table and placed a small piece of charcoal on top of them. I felt the bad vibes calm almost immediately.

"I'll be okay," I said resolutely. "I still don't think we've found the key."

On the way over to the mirror room, I made a mental note to give Teag a well-deserved raise. For combat pay. And I resolved to take him and Anthony out for dinner at the nicest restaurant I could afford. I couldn't imagine doing this on my own, and I was immensely grateful for their support.

I thought that Anthony might have balked at the idea of ghosts, supernatural phenomena, or my psychometric talent. But falling for Teag meant learning to accept Teag's Weaver magic. And since he and Teag had already jumped that hurdle, I guess seeing my abilities in action was no longer much of a shock. So far, I thought he was coping rather well.

Anthony opened the door to the last bedroom and flipped on the light.

"I don't think I'd want to sleep here," Anthony said, glancing around. "I can't put my finger on why, but something's not right."

Then again, perhaps Anthony's a sensitive. I thought to myself. That would certainly explain a few things. Teag had hinted as much, though I suspected Anthony might still be chalking up his insights into 'intuition'.

I started with the furniture again. It radiated moodiness. Anthony walked over to the window and looked out.

"This room looks down on the garden," he said. The garden that was mysteriously vandalized, I thought.

I picked up a vague longing from the seascape painting. The oil painting of the young woman, to my relief, gave no impression at all. That left the pewter lantern and the Chinese Foo dog statue, plus the mirror.

The lantern held a candle inside a small glass globe. It wasn't one of the pieces that came from Trifles and Folly, and neither was the Foo dog statue. The lantern wasn't our problem.

This was one of the rooms with a working fireplace. The opening was covered with a metal curtain, and a vintage poker and tongs sat in a holder next to the hearth. Two chairs were arranged facing the fireplace, and if weren't for the damned mirror, I bet the room would have felt charming and cozy.

The mirror hung over the mantle. It was the focal point of the room, and the piece I had been avoiding. Anywhere else, I would have thought it was a handsome piece with its ribbon-like bronze frame. For its age, the silver backing on the mirror was in very good condition, and I remembered thinking how lovely it was when we had it in the shop. Now, it seemed sinister.

As I stared at the mirror, I caught a glimpse of a shadow behind me. I wheeled, and saw nothing, feeling foolish as Teag and Anthony stared at me.

"Something wrong?" Teag asked.

"I thought I saw something," I murmured, turning my attention back to the mirror. I decided to leave the Chinese Foo dog statue for last.

I took another step toward the mirror, fighting my fear. As I stared into it, I felt turmoil, as if beneath the placid silver surface wild seas roiled. Just in case, I took one of Teag's pouches of salt and shoved it into my jeans pocket. When I got within arm's length, I saw that the mirror was gray, not silver, and at this distance, I could make out ghostly images sliding across it.

I touched the mirror, and tumbled into its depths.

Someone--something--was in the mirror. I could see motion out of the corner of my eye, but every time I turned to see, nothing was there. I felt like Alice, gone through the looking glass, adrift in a silvery world. A world where I was not alone.

Claws skittered against a hard surface behind me. I wheeled, but the silver room was empty. I could hear muffled voices in the distance. Some were chanting. Others screamed in terror.

A shadow slid across the silvery surface of the walls, but like a hall of mirrors, it was impossible to know what was real and what was reflection. I was cold, disoriented, and afraid. The shadow man skirted the edge of my vision, and I had the sense the spirit was enjoying my fear, feeding from it. I was afraid to move, fearful that I might get lost in this reflective realm, unable to find my way back.

Then I saw him. The shadow man loomed ahead of me. The image was more solid and opaque than a normal shadow, its form elongated, not quite human. Although I couldn't make out any features, I knew it was watching me, making up its mind. Malevolence radiated from the image and my heart thudded. It was the predator. I was the prey.

The shadow rushed at me, impossibly long arms outstretched, claw-like fingers grasping. It came at me like the wind. With one hand, I grasped my agate necklace, and with the other, I grabbed a handful of salt from the pocket of my jeans and threw it at the shadow. Just for an instant, it wavered, but I knew it would come at me again.

Strong hands grabbed me from behind, hauling me backward. My hand lost contact with the mirror. Only then did I realize I was screaming. I came back to myself caught in Anthony's tight embrace and fresh from the horror of the vision, I fought him, possessed with sheer, primal terror. His strong hands gripped my wrists.

"Take it easy," he coaxed. "You're back now. You're safe."

I was shaking, and I felt sick to my stomach. Anthony eased me into the chair by the fireplace. It was several more moments before I could give even the briefest account of what I had seen. In the meantime, Teag had already sprinkled a line of salt beneath the mirror and had begun blowing a fine dusting of charcoal powder over the reflective surface, which reduced its powerful energy to a dull, distant roar.

"You were screaming bloody murder," Teag said, looking utterly unnerved. "Good thing we're the only guests at the inn, or someone would be calling the cops."

One thing was undeniable. The mirror had not possessed the power to draw me into it at Trifles and Folly.

"I saw the shadow man in the mirror," I told them, once I caught my breath. "It's become a gateway, a portal. It was looking for me, and it attacked." I let out a long breath. "Thanks for getting me out of there."

"Do you think the mirror is the key?" Teag asked.

I thought for a moment, then shook my head. "No. It's dangerous, and whatever spirit was inside it is malicious, but I don't think it's the focal point."

Just for good measure, I touched my palm to the agate necklace on my chest. Then I turned to look at the Foo dog statue.

Eliminate all other factors and the ones which remain must be the truth, Sherlock Holmes had said. I had the feeling that I was staring the 'truth' of Gardenia Landing's haunting in the eyes as I looked at the Chinese sculpture.

I put out my hand, and let it hover above the shiny blue glaze that covered the stylized little dog. "I think I've found the problem," I said.

Copyright © 2014 by Gail Z. Martin


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Deadly Curiosities

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