Kalayna Price Grave Witch (Alex Craft)

ISBN 13: 9780241956656

Grave Witch (Alex Craft)

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9780241956656: Grave Witch (Alex Craft)

In this gripping series debut from author Kalayna Price, police consultant Alex Craft can communicate with the dead---but in her latest case, someone clearly doesn't want her to know what they have to say.

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About the Author:

Kalayna Price is the author of two dark/urban fantasy series: the Haven novels, which include Once Bitten and Twice Dead, and the Alex Craft series. Kalayna draws her ideas from the world around her, ancient mythology, and classic folklore. Visit her at kalayna.com.

Emily Durante has been narrating audiobooks for over ten years and is also an AudioFile Earphones Award-winning audiobook director. She has been acting since the age of seven and has performed in a number of stage productions at the professional, collegiate, and regional levels.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother's medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn't—particularly when we crossed paths on the job.

"Ms. Craft, this is beyond unacceptable." Henry Baker accented the statement with a plump fist slicing the air before his face. Behind him loomed Death.

Eighteen years of practice kept my gaze off the jeans-clad soul collector and on my client, whose face darkened from cherry red to bruised purple. I fingered the spray of funeral lilies at my side, dreading the direction this conversation was taking.

"Our contract stipulated I raise the shade. I did."

Baker swatted aside my protest. "You promised me results."

"I said you could ask your questions." I leaned against his father's coffin. It wasn't exactly respectful, but I'd just shoved the senior Baker's shade back into his body two hours before his funeral. Respect had nothing to do with this job. But hey, a paycheck is a paycheck.

Baker turned on his heel and stomped across the aisle. I waited. I knew what was coming. Baker was a fortune hunter—a failed one at that—and I'd worked with his like before.

Death followed in Baker's wake. He exaggerated each heavy step, mocking the chubby man's jerky movements. All the while, a grin clung to his lips, his dark eyes never leaving me.

This had better be a social visit. I met his gaze, pleading, warning—I didn't care which—him to leave my client alone. He flashed a row of perfectly straight teeth, which didn't tell me anything.

Baker continued to pace.

Well, best get this part over quickly. "According to our contract, you can pay by cash, check, or money order. Will you need a receipt?"

Baker jerked to a stop. His eyes bulged, the skin hanging from his cheeks shaking. "I refuse to pay for this."

Here we go. I shoved away from the casket. "Listen, mister, you wanted a shade raised. I raised a shade. If dear old dad didn't say what you wanted, well, that's your problem, not mine. We have a binding agreement and if—"

He dropped his fist, and his eyes flew wide, startled.

That was simpler than I expected. I let out a breath to purge the rant from my tongue and pasted on my professional smile. "Now, will you need a receipt?"

Baker gripped his chest and wheezed. Once. Twice. Then, in slow motion, his neck twisted and his gaze moved over his shoulder. The amusement melted from Death's face.

Oh crap.

Angel of Death, Soul Collector, Grim Reaper—whatever you called him, most people saw him only once. He strolled forward, and Baker stumbled back a step.

Crap. I jumped from the casket platform. "Don't."

Too late.

Death reached into Baker's pudgy torso, and the color leached from my client's face. He swayed. Death stepped back, and Baker blinked once more before crumpling.

A scream rang from the corner of the room, followed by the clatter of chairs. The funeral director sprinted up the aisle, Baker's wife and teenage son behind him. His assistant, her eyes already glistening, fumbled a phone from her waistband.

"Nine-one-one," she said as Baker the third—and last remaining—pumped his father's chest. Poor kid.

I crept away from the commotion. Giving the family space was all I could really do. Death had already collected the soul—there wasn't any way to revive Henry Baker now. Not that I was going to be the one to tell his family that fact.

Death leaned against the far wall, his muscular arms crossed over his wide chest. He smiled, all devilish innocence as his dark hair fell forward around his chin.

I glared at him and scooped my purse from the floor. I couldn't fault him for collecting Baker's soul—after all, he had a job to do—but…;

"You could have waited until I got paid."

He shrugged. "Didn't seem like he planned to pay you."

True. Maybe. The frantic huddle around Baker's body churned. This is so going to be bad for business.

I shoved my hand in my purse and fished along the bottom. I ignored the billfold—I knew it was empty. Under the tube of chalk for casting my circle, a ceramic ritual knife, my cell phone, and my license, I discovered three pennies, a dime, a crumpled foil wrapper, and a paper clip.

Death glanced at the treasure spread over my palm. "Planning on buying a gumball?"

"Bus fare for the trip home."

We both frowned at my palm. Thirteen cents wasn't going to cut it. But an emergency vet bill had wiped out everything I had. Until a job actually paid out, I was broke.

"Aren't you working the Amanda Holliday trial with the DA?" Death asked.

I dumped the change into my purse. "The shade won't take the stand until tomorrow, and then I have to wait for the City, or whoever, to cut the check."

I was giving the prosecution their star witness, because for once, being dead wasn't going to stop the victim from accusing her murderer. So far the headlines were mixed on whether I was the "voice of the silenced" or the "corrupter of the dead," but one thing was certain: it was big news.

More important, as long as the defense didn't rip me apart, I might end up on Nekros City's permanent payroll instead of being just an occasional consultant for the police. Then I wouldn't have to deal with fortune hunters like Henry Baker.

"You staying for this?" Death nodded toward Baker's body.

Baker's son still pumped the dead man's chest, fighting to reclaim his father, but the new widow had abandoned hope. She clung to the funeral director, who steered her toward the seats in the front row. I didn't see the assistant.

"Yeah, I'm staying. I wouldn't want to be accused of fleeing the scene."

Death shrugged, his black-clad shoulders lifting slightly. As they dropped again he vanished. I hated when he did that. One minute here; the next gone. He'd turn up again. He always did.

In my purse, Queen's Freddie Mercury belted out the line "We will rock you," and I cringed. The widow's gaze snapped to me, her mascara-ringed eyes hard.

Maybe not the best ringtone for the current situation.

Turning away, I dug my phone out and glanced at the display. I didn't know the number. Let this be a job, not a bill collector. I flipped it open. "You've reached Tongues for the Dead. This is Alex Craft."

"Alexis?"

I pulled the phone from my ear and frowned at the display. I still didn't know the number. Who would call me—

"Alexis," the female voice asked again. "Are you there? I need your help."

"Casey?"

Her affirmative was a choked sob. My sister never called me. What was I supposed to say to her?

"What do you need?" I asked, and then grimaced. The question had sounded a lot more sensitive in my head.

"Have you seen the paper?"

"Not today."

Casey's voice caught in her throat, and it took her two tries to whisper, "They found Teddy."

Teddy?

The angry click of high heels rang across the room, heading in my direction. Uh-oh. I covered the mouth of the phone with my palm as I turned. The new widow was a head shorter than me, but twice as wide, and right now it looked as if that extra weight was pure mean anger.

"You did this." Her finger drilled into my arm.

Oh good—she's found someone to blame. Me.

Clearing my throat, I ducked my head and said, "I'm very sorry for your loss."

She continued as though she hadn't heard me. "I told him not to hire a witch. I told him." Her voice turned shrill, and she collapsed into the wall. "I told him."

I backed away, allowing the director to ease Mrs. Baker onto a seat. In the distance, sirens hurtled down the street.

The phone squawked in my hand. "Alexis, are you there?"

"Yes, I'm here. You said something about a Teddy."

The line was silent long enough that I wondered if she'd hung up; then she said, "Theodore Coleman? Surely you've heard of him. The police found his body last night. I need to know who shot him and where he's been these past two weeks."

I almost dropped the phone. She had to be kidding. Vice presidential hopeful Governor Theodore Coleman? A restaurant's surveillance camera had caught the shooting, but then Coleman had disappeared. If his body had been found, it would be a big case. Considering Coleman's political affiliation with the Humans First Party—and the party's open disdain for witches—my interference wouldn't be appreciated. "Casey, I don't think—"

"Please." Her voice broke again. "The police think Daddy is involved. They've been by the house several times already."

I rolled my eyes. The police could look, but nothing stuck to Lieutenant Governor George Caine. Well, I guess he's actually the governor now. Our father had deep pockets and a wide reach. After all, he'd buried my name change from Caine to Craft—and the fact his daughter was a practicing witch—so deep the media hadn't managed to dig it up during his campaign. Besides, I'd barely spoken to him since I'd turned eighteen. I saw him more in the paper and on TV campaigning for the Humans First Party than in person. Why would I get involved now? "Casey, this really isn't—"

"Please. This is what you do—right? You're some sort of magic eye?"

My jaw clenched. "Magic eye" was slang for a witch with a private detective license who did very little "real" investigative work. While I might not trail leads through dark alleys, and my investigations typically went only as far as questioning the deceased, I did find answers for my clients.

I took a deep breath and forced a smile to spread across my face, to seep into my voice. "I'm sorry. I can't help you." The words came out sickly sweet, but I didn't talk to my sister enough for her to recognize the tone. "I can't get involved in an ongoing police investigation."

"I can pay you."

I frowned at the phone. Last I'd heard, Casey had bought into the antiwitch position of the Humans First Party. If she was willing to actually hire me, she must be truly worried.

"Please, Alexis. Please. I need your help."

"Okay." Damn. I was working for my little sister, but I'd look into the case. See what I could find. With a sigh, I rattled off my standard legal spiel, quoted my rates, and told Casey to expect an e-mailed copy of my contract later that afternoon. As I spoke, the sirens hurtled closer, and I shouldered my purse with its thirteen cents, gum wrapper, and paper clip.

"When will you talk to the ghost?"

Ghost? I suppressed a groan but didn't bother correcting her. After all these years, if she hadn't grasped the fact that ghosts were cognizant, wandering souls, but shades were just memories, she clearly hadn't been paying me any attention. Instead I said, "If you want to be present to question Coleman's shade, we'll have to wait until the police release the body and it's in the ground. If you want faster answers, I might be able to question him at the morgue, but you can't attend the ritual."

The line was silent except for soft, ragged breaths on the other side. I gave her a moment to think as the sound of sirens drew closer.

"The morgue." Casey's voice dropped in pitch. "How soon will you get back to me?"

Getting access to a high-profile body in an open case would be difficult, but I'd built connections during my three years of running Tongues for the Dead. "I have a friend at the station. I'll give him a call, but I can't make any promises. I'll contact you tonight if I get access to the morgue today. Otherwise, expect me to check in tomorrow afternoon."

Wrapping up the call, I saved Casey's number and moved to get the door for the paramedics. The ambulance pulled to a stop, and a black and white cop car jetted to the curb behind it. Good—maybe the cops could give me a ride. The chill of Mrs. Baker's glare crawled across my shoulders. I wanted to catch a ride in the front seat of the cop car—not in the back of the wagon, under arrest.

As the paramedics rushed up the stairs I scrolled through the contacts on my phone until I reached the number for my friendly neighborhood homicide detective. A gruff voice answered on the third ring.

"Hey, John," I said as I stepped clear of the emergency workers. "I need a favor."


The doors to the Nekros City Central Precinct slid open, allowing the sixty-degree air inside to escape. The sweat clinging to my skin from the short walk across the blacktop chilled instantly. Six p.m. and the temperature hadn't dropped under a hundred yet. The South in the summer—you had to love it.

I swiped the escaped blond curls plastered to my face back into a messy ponytail and turned to wave to the two officers who'd given me a ride. I hadn't been arrested in connection to Baker's death, but there had been some tense moments back at the funeral parlor. Luckily, when Tamara, the medical examiner, arrived, she'd been able to confirm the absence of magical influence on the body during her initial examination, which freed me to follow up with John at the morgue. My favorite homicide detective had agreed to get me in to see Coleman's body, but only if I did a favor for him in return. In this case, "a favor" translated into raising an extra shade.

The cops turned out of the parking lot, and I stepped between the automatic doors and headed for the security check. I dug my wallet and ceremonial knife from my purse before dropping the bag on the conveyer belt. As my purse disappeared under the X-ray machine I put the knife in the basket the guard gave me. Then I handed the basket and my wallet—open to display my PI license and my magical certification issued by the Organization for Magically Inclined Humans—OMIH for short—to the guard. He glanced over my credentials before confiscating the knife, which I'd pretty much expected. Turning, I walked through the metal detector. No issue there, but the spell detector beeped loudly as I stepped through.

The security guard motioned me to stop and grabbed a spellchecker wand. "Hands out, palms up."

I did as he instructed, tapping my toe inside my boot as he waved the wand with its rudimentary detection spell over me. The glass bead on the tip glowed green as it moved over my right hand and the obsidian ring I stored raw magic in. Green meant magic, but not an active spell. On my other wrist, the bead glowed yellow as it traced over my shield bracelet—active magic, but not a malicious charm. Malicious spells, even inactive ones, made the bead glow red. The bead didn't turn red.

With a nod, the guard motioned for me to drop my hands as he placed the wand back in its stand. I grabbed my purse, my wallet, and the ticket I'd need to reclaim my knife when I left. Then I made my way to the elevators.

Central Precinct was an austere but multipurpose building situated in the middle of downtown Nekros in what people tended to refer to as the judicial block because of the proximity of the statehouse, the state supre...

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Kalayna Price
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