Life is tough these days for Lydia Smith, licensed para-archaeologist. Seriously stressed-out from a nasty incident in an alien tomb, she is obliged to work part-time in Shrimpton’s House of Ancient Horrors, a very low-budget museum. She has a plan to get her career back on track, but it isn’t going well. Stuff keeps happening.
Take the dead body that she discovered in one of the sarcophagus exhibits. Who needed that? Finding out that her new client, Emmett London, is one of the most dangerous men in the city isn’t helping matters either. And that’s just today’s list of setbacks. Here in the shadows of the Dead City of Old Cadence, things don’t really heat up until After Dark.
Includes a preview of Jayne Castle’s Rainshadow Novel DECEPTION COVE
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If it had not been horribly obvious that Chester Brady was already dead, Lydia Smith might have strangled him herself.
Her first assumption when she rounded the corner into the shadowy Dead City Tomb wing of Shrimpton's House of Ancient was that Chester was pulling another scan. It had to be some bizarre con tactic designed to steal her new client prospect right out from under her nose before she could get his name on a contract.
It was so typical of the little sneak. And after all she'd done for him.
She came to a half and stared at the leg and arm hanging limply over the side of the ancient sarcophagus. Maybe it was just a weird gag this time. After all, Chester's sense of humor did lean toward childish pranks.
But there was something a little too realistic about the way he was slumped in the not-quite-human-shaped coffin.
"Maybe he just fainted or something," she said, without much hope.
"Don't think so." Emmett London glided around her and walked forward to gaze down into the green quartz burial box: "He's very dead. You'd better call the authorities."
She took another cautious step forward and saw the blood. It had drained from Chester's throat into the bottom of the coffin.
The reality of what she was staring at hit her with a numbing jolt. She could not believe it. Not Chester. He was a thief and a con artist, the kind of shady character who gave name to all legitimate antiquities dealers and respectable para-archaeologists, buthe was a friend too. Sort of.
She swallowed heavily. "An ambulance?"
Emmett looked at her. Something about his gaze made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was the eerie gold-green hue. It was a little too close to the color of her pet dust-bunny's second pair of eyes, the ones it used for hunting.
"There's no rush on the ambulance," Emmett said. "I'd start with the police if I were you."
Easy for him to say, Lydia though. The problem was that the first person the cops would want to talk to would probably be her. Everyone on Ruin Row knew that she'd had a furious argument with Chester last month because the little creep had snaffled off her first potential client.
Oh, God, Chester was deadgenuinely dead. It was difficult to grasp the concept. This wasn't another one of his convenient disappearing acts designed to keep him one step ahead of an enraged client. This time his death was for real.
She suddenly felt light-headed. This could not be happening.
Deep breaths, she thought. Take some deep breaths. She would not fall apart. She would not lose it. She was not going to crack under stress the way everyone expected her to do.
With an effort she pulled herself together.
She glanced up from Chester's body and found Emmett London watching her. His expression was oddly thoughtful, even mildly curious in a detached sort of way. It was as if he was waiting to see how she would react, as if her response to the sight of a dead body in a sarcophagus was merely an interesting academic puzzle.
Unconsciously, her gaze went to his wrist. She had caught a glimpse of his watch a few minutes ago. The dial was set in an amber face. No big deal, she thought. Amber accessories were fashionable. A lot of people wore amber simply because it was stylish. But some people wore it because amber was the medium that powerful para-resonators used to focus their psychic talents.
Another shiver went through her.
"Yes, of course, the police," she whispered. "There's a phone in my office. If you'll excuse me, Mr. London, I'll go call them."
"I'll wait here," Emmett said.
So calm and unruffled, she thought. Maybe stumbling across dead bodies was routine for him.
"I'm really very sorry about this." She didn't know what else to say.
Emmett regarded her with that unwavering expression of polite interest. "Did you kill him?"
The shock of the question left her momentarily speechless.
"No," she finally gasped. "No, I most certainly did not kill Chester."
"Then it's not your fault, is it? There's no need to apologize."
She got the distinct impression that he would not have been especially troubled if she had admitted to murdering poor Chester. She wondered uneasily what that said about him.
She turned away to walk back along the gloom-filled display gallery to her office. Her glance fell on Chester's foot propped on the edge of the green sarcophagus. The foot was encased in a boot made of some sort of cheap imitation lizard skin.
Chester had always been a flashy dresser, Lydia reflected. To her surprise, she felt a pang of wholly unexpected sadness. True, he had been a sleazy, opportunistic. hustler. But he was only one of many who eked out a living on the fringes of the booming antiquities trade here in Cadence. The eerie green quartz ruins of the long-vanished alien civilization that had once flourished here on Harmony provided a variety of profit niches for industrious entrepreneurs. Chester had not been the worst of the lot who worked in the shadow of the Dead City wall.
He had been a nuisance, but he had been colorful. She was going to miss him.
At five o'clock that afternoon, Melanie Tort stood in the doorway of Lydia's tiny office, her dark eyes alight with curiosity. "What did they say? Are you in the clear?"
"Not entirely." Exhausted by the hours of police questioning, Lydia sagged back into the depths of her chair. "Detective Martinez said they think Chester was murdered sometime between midnight and three A.M. I was home in bed at the time."
Melanie made a tut-tutting sound. "Alone, I suppose?"
Melanie was never loath to bring up, the subject of sex. Six months ago she had terminated her third, or maybe it was her fourth, Marriage of Convenience. She made no secret about the fact that she was open to the notion of a fifth.
On the basis of her considerable experience, Melanie had appointed herself Lydia's personal sex advisor. Not that she had any great need of the expertise, Lydia thought. Her sex life, never what anyone would term lively, had become downright moribund in the past year.
Lydia absently fingered the amber stones in her bracelet, "How does a person verify that she was innocently asleep in her own bed when someone got murdered?"
Melanie folded her arms and leaned against the door frame. "It would certainly be a whole lot easier to prove if you had not been alone in said bed. I've been warning you for months about the dangers of not having a more active social life. Now you see the risks of being celibate for extended periods of time."
"Right. A person never knows when she's going to need a good alibi for murder."
Concern replaced some of the fascinated interest on Melanie's face. "Lydia, are youyou know okay?"
It was starting already, Lydia thought. "Don't worry, you don't have to call the folks in the white coats yet. I'm not going to have a nervous breakdown in front of you. Thought I'd save it until I get home tonight."
"Sorry. It's just that you told me that the para-rez shrinks had advised you to avoid stressful situations."
"What makes you think I've had a stressful day? All I've done so far is find a dead body in the Tomb Gallery, spend a few hours being grilled by the cops, and probably lose my shot at signing up a private client who could have single-handedly elevated my financial status into the next tax bracket."
"I see your point. Nothing stressful about a day like that. Not in the least." Melanie straightened away from the door frame and moved into the office. She sat down in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. "Just a walk in the park."
A new worry descended on Lydia. She could not afford to lose this job. "I wonder what Shrimpton will say when he gets back from vacation tomorrow and finds out what happened."
"Are you kidding? Shrimp will probably give you a raise." Melanie chuckled. "What better publicity for Shrimpton's House of Ancient Horrors than the discovery of a murder victim in one of the exhibits?"
Lydia groaned. "That's the sad part, isn't it? If this makes the evening papers, there will probably be a line of people around the block tomorrow morning."
"Uh-huh." Melanie's expression turned serious again. "I thought the police questioning was strictly routine. Are you really a suspect?"
"Beats me. I'm still sitting here behind my desk, which means no one's arrested me so far. I take till as a positive. sign." Lydia drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. "But the cops knew about my flaming row with Chester in the Surreal Lounge last month."
Melanie frowned. "Not good."
"No. Fortunately, Detective Martinez also seems to be aware of the fact that Chester had a lot of disgruntled clients and more than a few enemies on Ruin Row. It'll take her a while to sort out all the possible suspects. It's going to be a long list."
Melanie shrugged. "I doubt the police will spend too much time on the case. Chester Brady wasn't exactly a high-profile victim or an upstanding member of the community. He had several brushes with the law, and his name was compost with the Society of Para-archaeologists."
"True. I imagine the only people at his funeral will be the folks he ripped off. They'll attend just to make sure he's actually dead."
"Probably hold a celebration at the nearest bar afterward."
"Probably." Lydia sighed. "I don't think there will be any family at the graveside, either. Chester once told me that he had no close relatives, He was always saying that was one of the things he and I had in common."
Melanie snorted softly. "You and Chester Brady had nothing at all in common. He was a classic loser, always looking for the big score and always screwing it up whenever he came close to getting it."
"I know." Not so very different from her at all, Lydia thought glumly. But she refrained from saying that aloud. "It's weird, but I think I'm going to miss him."
Melanie rolled her eyes. "I don't see how you can summon up any sympathy for the little jerk after the way he stole your first client away from you last month."
"He just looked so pathetic lying there in that sarcophagus, Mel. The blood and everything." Lydia shuddered. "It was awful. You know, Chester was pond scum, but I'm surprised that he actually made someone mad enough to murder him."
"Among his other glowing qualities, Brady was a thief. That tends to irritate folks."
"There is that," Lydia conceded. "And as a parting gift to me, on his way to the afterlife he managed to sabotage the sweet deal I had going this morning."
"Think you've lost the client who came to interview you today?"
"For sure. The poor guy had to spend an hour with the cops because of what happened. He was polite about it, but I got the impression that Mr. London is not accustomed to tolerating that kind of inconvenience. He's a rich, successful businessman from Resonance City. When he phoned earlier he made it clear he prefers to keep a very low profile. He wanted all sorts of assurances about discretion and confidentiality. Thanks to me he'll probably wind up in the evening papers."
"Not real discreet or confidential," Melanie agreed.
"Considering the circumstances, he was amazingly civil about the whole thing." Lydia propped her chin on her hands. "He didn't say anything rude, but I know I'll never see him again."
Lydia cocked a brow. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, really. It just occurred to me to wonder why a rich, successful businessman who likes to keep a low profile would contact a para-archaeologist who worked in a place like Shrimpton's House of Ancient Horrors."
"When he could have had his pick of university consultants from the Society of Para-archaeologists?" Lydia asked grimly. "Okay, I'll admit I sort of wondered about that, too. But I didn't want to push my good luck, so I refrained from posing such delicate questions."
Melanie leaned across the desk to pat her arm. "Hang in there, pal. There will be other clients."
"Not like this one. This one had money, and I had plans." Lydia held up her thumb and forefinger spaced an inch apart. "I was this close to giving my landlord notice that I would not be renewing my lease on that large closet he calls an apartment."
"Yeah. But maybe it's all for the best."
"What makes you say that?" Melanie asked.
Lydia thought about the too casual way London had asked her if she had murdered Chester. "Something makes me think that working for Emmett London might have been almost as stressful as finding dead bodies in the Tomb Gallery."
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“An appealingly effervescent romance mildly spiced with paranormal fun.”—Publishers Weekly
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