Most folks associate the city of Salem, Massachusetts with witches, but for Lee Barrett, it's home. This October she's returned to her hometown--where her beloved Aunt Ibby still lives--to interview for a job as a reporter at WICH-TV. But the only opening is for a call-in psychic to host the late night horror movies. It seems the previous host, Ariel Constellation, never saw her own murder coming.
Lee reluctantly takes the job, but when she starts seeing real events in the obsidian ball she's using as a prop, she wonders if she might really have psychic abilities. To make things even spookier, it's starting to look like Ariel may have been an actual practicing witch--especially when O'Ryan, the cat Lee and Aunt Ibby inherited from her, exhibits some strange powers of his own. With Halloween fast approaching, Lee must focus on unmasking a killer--or her career as a psychic may be very short lived. . .
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Caught Dead Handed
By Carol J. Perry
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Carol J. Perry
All rights reserved.
After parking the borrowed Buick in a space marked VISITOR, I pulled down the visor mirror and smoothed a couple of strands of red hair into place. I stepped out beside a granite seawall onto a sparse, brittle strip of grass that was already winter-killed, although it was only October. Hiking the strap of my handbag over the shoulder of a new green wool suit, I took a deep breath of salty air. A dingy, mouse-colored sky hung over Salem Harbor, threatening but not yet raining on the sprawling New England city I used to call home.
Ducking the chill wind by staying close to the weathered brick structure housing WICH-TV, I rounded the corner of the building. The Salem cable channel's ad for a field reporter had come along at just the right time for me. Dodging a page of soggy newspaper cartwheeling across the parking lot like so much urban tumbleweed, I dashed up three broad marble steps to a gracefully arched doorway.
Some things don't change. The old streets are still messy, and the old buildings are still beautiful.
Some things do change. Ten years can be a long time in the life of a city. Or of a person. Half a lifetime ago I'd walked along this same street on my way to school—teenage Maralee Kowolski with big dreams of becoming an actress, a star. Now I was back. Thirty-year-old Lee Barrett, unemployed, with hardly any dreams left, Salem born, orphaned early, married once, widowed young. Just yesterday I'd flown here from Florida. I'd come home to the place where I was raised, my aunt Ibby's big old house on Winter Street, exchanging sunshine and theme parks for Salem's unpredictable weather and historic architecture.
The station's lobby featured an old-fashioned black-and-white tile floor and a brass-doored vintage elevator, which growled its way slowly upward. At the end of the second-floor corridor I found the office I was looking for. Gilt lettering across the glass spelled out WICH-TV. No tile floor here. A turquoise carpet vied for attention with purple leather and chrome furniture. A curved reception desk was topped with a towering arrangement of silk lilacs. A brunette receptionist looked in my direction. Her name tag said RHONDA, with the o in the form of a heart. I glanced at the gold sunburst clock. It was a couple of minutes before nine. I was right on time for my interview with the station manager. I felt almost confident.
"Good morning," I said, trying to modulate my normally throaty voice. "I'm Lee Barrett. I have a nine o'clock appointment with Mr. Doan."
That voice had become sort of a trademark for me, first as a weather girl on a Miami cable station and more recently as a show host on a Central Florida TV home-shopping program.
I mentally crossed my fingers. If this interview went well, there'd be no more cumulus clouds or cubic zirconia in my future. I'd have a real TV job.
Rhonda consulted an open notebook. "Mr. Doan said that if you showed up, I should tell you that he's very sorry. The job you applied for has already been filled."
"What do you mean, if I showed up?" I reached into my handbag and pulled out a letter. "Here!" I waved the paper, signed with the station manager's name. "Mr. Doan specifically said that I was under serious consideration for the field reporter's job. I flew here from Florida for this interview!"
She arched black-penciled eyebrows and shrugged. "Sorry. He hired somebody else. Some guy."
"Some guy," I repeated. "Well, that's just great! Please tell Mr. Doan thanks a lot for his consideration."
"Sure." If she'd caught my sarcasm, she didn't show it.
I've been told that I have the typical redhead's temper, but I've learned to control it pretty well. Too angry to say anything else, and close to tears, I headed down the long corridor toward the elevator. Rows of framed photographs lined the walls. I recognized Phil Archer. He'd been an anchor on WICH-TV since I was a little kid. A cute blonde was posed in front of a weather map, and an athletic-looking guy held a football. There was one blank space with a dusty outline of an oblong frame.
Must be reserved for the photo of the next field reporter. Some guy.
"Damn," I whispered. "Damn. Damn. Damn."
"Bad day?" The voice came from just over my shoulder. I turned and looked into brown eyes, just about level with my own green ones. The man was slim and wiry, probably in his mid-forties, with a prominent nose and dark hair graying at the temples.
"A really bad day," I agreed. "One of the worst."
The door of the office I'd just left burst open, and a red-faced man stormed out.
"Cancel my appointments, Rhonda," he shouted. "That sow! She can't do this! I'll sue the bitch! She has a contract!"
He stepped in front of me and punched the already lit call button.
"Problem, Mr. Doan?" Brown Eyes spoke softly.
"Huh? Oh, hello, George. Yeah." Doan ran a hand through thinning hair. "Seems the psychic walked out in the middle of last night's show. Just like that. And now the bitch isn't answering her phone. Walked out! She'd better never show her fat face around here again!"
The elevator rattled to a stop, and sliding gates slowly began to part. Doan pounded on them, then seemed to notice me for the first time.
"You going up?"
"Down," I said.
"Well, I'm taking this one up." The doors clanged shut, and the elevator growled upward.
"Nice guy," I muttered. "What was that all about?"
"Seems our late-show psychic has resigned suddenly," George said.
He nodded. "Right. Ariel Constellation. WICH-TV's late-night movie host and call-in psychic."
I smothered a laugh. "Ariel Constellation?"
"Yep." He tapped one of the frames. "There she is."
It was one of those coy, hand-under-the-chin poses. A round face was topped by an enormous platinum beehive. An arrangement of shiny stars and moons decorated the lacquered hair. A star-shaped beauty mark on her cheek accented lavender-lidded eyes, and the large onyx ring on her extended pinkie finger was set with a five-pointed star at its center. A big yellow striped cat snuggled against an ample, satin-clad shoulder and stared, golden-eyed, into the camera.
"Wow," I said, pointing at the symbol on the ring. "Does she think she's a witch?"
"So they say." He smiled. "She always wears that witch's pentagram. I think it's just part of the act. A Salem thing."
The elevator doors slid open once more, and we stepped inside.
"You've really never seen Ariel?" he asked. "You must be the only person in Salem who doesn't watch Nightshades. "
"I've been away for quite a while. What does Ariel Constellation do, exactly?"
"She hosts Nightshades, our late-night show. It's mostly old Twilight Zones and Outer Limits and some of the classic horror films. Stuff like that," he said. "In between commercial breaks she takes phone calls. Live. She answers questions. Gives advice."
"Like Miss Cleo? And the old Psychic Friends Network? I thought that sort of thing had been pretty much discredited."
"Only because they used to charge for it. Advice is free on Nightshades."
"Neat programming idea," I said. "Is she good?"
He shrugged, smiling. "I don't care much for that kind of baloney myself, but the audience seems to love it. The ratings are amazing for that time of night. She beats The Tonight Show sometimes."
"No kidding? Do you think she really quit?"
"Might have. She and Doan never got along. And she's managed to get on the wrong side of Mrs. Doan somehow, too. Anyway, Ariel's kind of an old hippie. Lost in the sixties," he said. "She always talked about going back to California. Maybe that's what she did."
When we reached the ground floor, he stuck out his hand. "I'm George Valen," he said. "Cameraman. I didn't get your name."
I shook his hand. He had a good grip. "Lee," I said. "Lee Barrett."
"Well, so long, Lee. I hope your day gets better."
"Thanks." I gave a brief wave, pulled the car keys from my handbag, and stepped out the front door onto Derby Street. I turned the corner of the building and headed along the edge of the paved lot toward the wall where I'd parked Aunt Ibby's Buick. The seawall beside the car was a little more than knee-high, and a fine mist of salt spray fanned out over the top of it with each slowly rolling wave. I could taste it on my lips. The cries of seagulls and the soft slap-slap of waves against rough stone had a calming effect, and I paused there for a moment, just listening.
I could sure use some calming down right about now, I thought, anger rising again. I wanted that job. I deserved that job. Maybe working for the unpleasant Doan wouldn't have been much fun, after all, but what am I supposed to do now?
Then there was another sound. One that didn't fit in. A tiny buzzing noise. It seemed to come from the top of the wall. I bent toward the buzz and identified it immediately. Someone had dropped a slim cell phone, and it vibrated there, wedged between two of the huge granite slabs.
I leaned cautiously, reaching for it. Below the wall a tangle of seaweed drifted, mixed up with Styrofoam cups and beer cans, all the usual debris the tide brings ashore every day. There was a bright orange glove down there, the kind that lobstermen use. There was even a big lavender sofa cushion.
But sofa cushions don't have platinum hair, do they? Or a hand? A strangely discolored hand that seemed to wave in a languid motion as tiny fishes bumped and nibbled at the shiny ring on a plump finger.CHAPTER 2
I turned to run. To get help. To tell somebody. I stumbled over a large yellow cat and fell forward, scraping my knees and palms on the pebble-strewn pavement. I scrambled to my feet, pulse throbbing in my ears. Breaking into a run, I fumbled in the unfamiliar depths of the new handbag. A blank screen on the cell phone reminded me too late of the charger still in my suitcase. I shoved the station door open and crashed into a tall blond woman.
"Whoa, Red." She grabbed my arm. "In a hurry?"
"Dead." I gasped. "In the water. Call 911."
"Slow down. What's dead in the water? Your boat?"
"Look," I tried to speak slowly. "There's a body back there. Somebody should call the police."
"A body?" The blonde gripped my arm more tightly. "A dead body? Are you sure?"
I nodded, seeing again the platinum hair floating beneath the surface like so much pale seaweed, the tiny fishes nibbling at that hand with its witch's ring.
"Okay. Come on." She headed for a door marked STAIRS. "Damned elevator takes too long." The stairwell was gray and dingy, with metal treads curving toward a solid green door.
"Janice Valen," my companion announced as we pounded around a triangular landing halfway up.
"I'm Janice Valen. Program director. You?"
"Oh. Lee. Lee Barrett."
Another Valen ?
We tumbled out into the corridor, with its gallery of photos, and arrived at the glass door together. If we hadn't been there to announce a death, it probably would have been funny. Like a Laurel and Hardy entrance.
"Dial 911, Rhonda," Janice shouted to the brunette. "Quick."
Rhonda blinked and dropped her People magazine. "911? Why?"
"Oh, for Chrissake!" The blonde stretched a long, slim arm across the purple countertop and grabbed the telephone. "Here. I'll do it." She punched in the number.
Janice Valen gave her name and the address of the station. I walked over to a tall window overlooking the parking lot, half expecting to see a crowd gathering where I'd seen the body. But there was just the granite wall. The blue-gray water. The stunted brown grass. The yellow cat.
"I don't know. Just a minute." Janice covered the mouthpiece. "Hey, Red. Lee."
"Man? Or woman?"
"I think it's a woman."
Should I tell them I think it's their missing psychic? What if I'm wrong?
"Woman," Janice repeated. "Better hurry. Tide's going." She hung up. "Stick around, Lee. The cops want to talk to you."
Rhonda looked at me with new interest. "You found a body? Wow. Cool."
"Rhonda, call my brother. Tell him to get down to the seawall," Janice commanded. "We need to get a camera down there before the cops come."
Of course. Cameras. This is a TV station, after all. And George is her brother.
Rhonda picked up a pencil and poked a few buttons on the phone with the eraser. Janice headed for the office marked MANAGER.
"Hey, Doan," she called. "Guess what?"
I glanced around, not knowing what to do next. Down below, the once-empty vista was becoming crowded. Sirens and flashing lights heralded the arrival of police. The WICH-TV truck and camera crew arrived. I recognized George and wondered if the tall guy with him was the new field reporter.
That should be me out there, getting ready to do the live shot. But then I wouldn't have found the body, and poor Ariel ... if it is Ariel ... might have disappeared with the outgoing tide.
The next hour was a blur of activity. Two uniformed officers hovered around Rhonda, asking about who had been working at the station the previous day. Another officer disappeared into the manager's office. A tall, broad-shouldered man identified himself as Detective Mondello and joined me at the window.
A tall, broad-shouldered, good-looking man.
The thought surprised me. I hadn't paid much attention to that sort of thing since Johnny's death.
Poor Johnny. Poor me.
The detective made notes as he took my statement about hearing the phone and finding the body. "Did you touch the phone?"
"No. I guess it must still be there."
He nodded. "Just how did you happen to be here in the first place, Miss Barrett?"
"I was here applying for a job, and my car is parked next to the seawall."
Janice had come back into the room and stood next to the detective. Her brown eyes seemed to study me closely, and a surprised expression crossed her face. She snapped her fingers. "Barrett. Of course! I should have recognized you from the audition tape you sent! You're very good."
"Thanks." I didn't voice the obvious question. Then why didn't I get the job?
Detective Mondello looked from one of us to the other. "So you're a new employee here, Miss Barrett?"
"No. They hired someone else."
"I see." He was silent for a moment, scribbling in his notebook, and I turned back to the scene at the water's edge. As I watched, wet-suited divers placed their heavy burden, mercifully covered by a tarp, onto a wheeled gurney.
"Miss Valen?" The detective faced Janice. "We understand that there's a station employee missing."
"An employee?" Janice looked puzzled. "Oh, yes. Ariel ... the night-show host, left last night in the middle of her show. Oh no! You think it could be ..." She looked at me. "You said it was a woman. Oh my God!"
"Were you able to distinguish any features of the person you saw in the water, Miss Barrett?"
"Not really. I couldn't see the face. But she had blond hair. And a big ring on her hand."
"Jesus! It's Ariel. I have to tell Doan." Janice turned, pushing her way past the officers, hurrying to the station manager's office.
The detective grew silent again, watching Janice's retreating back. Down below, the new field reporter was on camera. He stood next to a long white van, doors open to receive the drowned woman, and the large yellow cat I'd tripped over sat beneath a nearly leafless tree, licking his paws with seeming unconcern as the body of his late mistress was trundled by.
"Miss Barrett, were you acquainted with the missing employee at all?"
"What? Oh, no," I answered. "No. I've never even seen her TV show. I just arrived from St. Petersburg last night."
"I see." He continued making notes. "And you say you came to Salem for a job interview?"
"Yes. Well, also I have family here."
"You weren't hired."
"Will you be returning to Florida soon, then?"
"I don't think so."
Returning to what? Johnny was gone. My job was gone. And I'd signed a two-year rental agreement on my condo in St. Petersburg.
"I see," he said again. "Do you have a local number? Somewhere you can be reached if we have further questions?"
I gave him the numbers for my cell and Aunt Ibby's house, and he snapped his notebook shut.
"Thank you, Miss Barrett."
"You're welcome, Detective."
He strode to the reception desk, pulled out the notebook again, and began speaking in low tones to Rhonda, who seemed to enjoy the attention. The scene in the parking lot had changed again. The white van was gone, and yellow tape was festooned along the wall. A mobile unit from one of the Boston TV stations had pulled into the lot, and the crowd had grown.
"Is that your Buick? Right in the middle of all the action?" Janice Valen spoke from behind me.
Excerpted from Caught Dead Handed by Carol J. Perry. Copyright © 2014 Carol J. Perry. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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