The antique music box inside the battered dish cupboard was lovely, but the imprints on it were even better. Someone had loved and cared for this treasure long before it had ended up in the attic at this May estate sale. Long enough ago that when I touched it I experienced only a warm, soothing satisfaction instead of any vivid emotions the owner might have once experienced. The imprints hadn’t been left by the former owner of the house, a widow who had died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of ninety-two, but were most likely from her mother as a child.
The dish cupboard that had protected the music box wasn’t worth the price the estate sale agents were asking, but the music box, with a separate price tag of two hundred and ten dollars, was a good value. I could resell the little wood box in my antiques shop for over five hundred after I fixed the music assembly—if I could bear to part with it. The lid of the box featured intricate roses inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and several of my customers collected similar boxes.
“Nice,” Paige Duncan said, studying it. In her navy suit and with her perfectly ironed, shoulder-length blond hair, the detective looked incongruous in the dirty attic where we sorted through treasures and junk alike. Someone had made a half-hearted attempt at cleaning the attic, but it was still dusty.
I placed the music box in the blue reusable grocery bag I’d brought to carry any small treasures I might uncover. Down on the main floor, Paige’s partner, Shannon Martin, who was also my boyfriend, was guarding a mirror and a rolltop desk for me. He wasn’t in uniform, but he was carrying a gun, and he had his badge, just in case, so I knew my future inventory was perfectly secure. That was more than I could claim when I went hunting on my own. Estate or “tag” sale attendees could be rather ruthless at times. I’d once had a set of antique balance scales, complete with weights, torn right from my hands by a woman with spiked heels and equally spiked blond hair.
Since we’d left Shannon talking with the employee of In Loving Memory, who was in charge of this particular estate sale, I hoped he’d charmed important information from her. His doing so was far more likely than me finding an imprint to confirm a possible series of geriatric murders.
“Anything?” Paige asked, her eyes briefly straying to where the only other occupant of the attic was examining a rolled-up rug in the corner.
I shook my head. We were here investigating In Loving Memory, and since Friday was my usual day for garage and estate sales, I was happy to play the part. The Portland Police Bureau didn’t pay me huge consultant fees, and the double duty would help keep my store, Autumn’s Antiques, afloat. My ability to read emotions imprinted on certain objects was the reason they wanted me on the job, but estate sales were my business, and I’d report anything that seemed out of the ordinary.
So far I’d come up with nothing in either imprints or suspicious activity.
Yet several competitors had noted In Loving Memory’s sudden wealth of clients and reported their suspicions that the deaths of those new clients might not have been accidental: an air tube dislodged while a night nurse was in the kitchen, a fall down the stairs, a drowning in a hot tub, another fall—this time on an icy walk. There was no proof that these incidents were any different from the many similar instances that claimed the lives of the elderly each year. That this company had tripled their net worth in the past two years, and had been planning to conduct auctions for many of the owners before their deaths, could simply be a matter of coincidence.
However, when several of the adult children of the deceased estate owners claimed that family heirlooms had gone missing before and during the sales, the police had finally decided to investigate.
I glanced at the guy in the corner with the rug. He was a grungy man, probably in his fifties, with weeks-old scruff on his face, wearing worn jeans and a black and gray patterned button-down shirt over a black T-shirt. Could the rug have any real value? And if so, how could he possibly pay for it?
These estate sales, where nearly the entire contents of a deceased person’s house were offered to the public for sale, attracted a varied clientele and contained as much overpriced junk as they did treasures. Attending them was a little like voyeurism; no place was off limits and everything not previously snapped up by the heirs was for sale, to be pawed over and examined by strangers.
For me, the glimpse into these strangers’ lives was true a hundred times over. Not only could I sense emotions left on beloved objects or on things frequently used, but I often experienced the stronger imprinted memories as though I’d lived them myself. In emotional crises, people imprinted on almost everything, regardless of an object’s emotional or monetary value.
My gift—or curse as sometimes it turned out to be—was called psychometry. Which was the fancy, scientific way of saying I somehow used areas of my brain that other people couldn’t, a talent inherited from my birth father.
I refused to answer to the title psychic.
Paige, the grungy man, and I were joined in the attic by two older ladies and a clean-cut young man with an engaging smile who was likely a grandson. One of the women looked agile, perhaps in her late sixties or early seventies, her dark hair, flecked heavily with gray, swept up in an elaborate twist at the back of her head. Her aqua suit reeked of money, but her casual attitude made her appear at home in the dusty attic. By contrast, the other white-haired woman, at least in her mid-seventies, looked frail and pale in her peach dress, and I wondered how she’d climbed the steep, narrow flight of stairs.
I let my bare hand glide over the slat-back of a child’s rocking chair made of oak and maple. It was from the early eighteen hundreds, the rockers underneath added much later, and the rush seat had been destroyed, perhaps eaten by mice. At a hundred dollars, the chair was a steal. I winced, though, as a negative imprint grabbed at me.
“You will sit in this chair, Beatrice, until you behave. Heaven knows I have enough pain in this horrid life without you adding to it with your sneaking and trickery.”
My face stung as Momma’s hand struck, the action tumbling her long, black hair forward over her shoulders. Hurt filled every corner of my body. Momma didn’t want me. I knew she didn’t. Not like the boys. I was too distracted, too undisciplined. I hadn’t meant to spill the flour when I was making the bread. I should have stopped myself from writing in it, though.
When Daddy got home I’d be in big trouble. He’d probably make me stand in the corner while everyone ate dinner. I might not get to eat at all, unless Tom snuck me up a bit of bread later. If he didn’t get whipped for cutting lessons again.
“Are you buying that?” a svelte voice said practically in my ear.
The voice gave me power to snatch my hand from the chair, to remember that I wasn’t Beatrice, but Autumn Rain, owner of an antiques shop, twin to Tawnia Winn, and part-time consultant for the Portland police.
I turned to see the spry old lady on my left, her eyes fixed greedily on the little chair.
Greedily? No, eagerly. I liked to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, especially someone whose relatives might be reselling this chair at another estate sale in the very near future, though the older woman looked healthy enough at the moment.
“It’s all yours,” I said. “Great price.”
I shouldn’t be so picky about negative imprints because I could probably make six hundred or more from it, even after replacing the seat. But I wouldn’t be able to bear having it in my store, not with that imprint—now over eighty years old—still retaining so much potency. I suspected that unless someone bought and loved that little chair, the imprint would remain strong for another eighty years.
My ability to read imprints wasn’t always an advantage. With the many bargains I had to pass up, it certainly hadn’t made me rich.
“Thank you, dear.” The woman glanced once at my bare feet before nodding to the young man to take the chair. He came forward with a slight stoop to his shoulders.
“Finished?” Paige asked me in an undertone. She grimaced slightly, showing her white teeth, perfectly straight except for a slight sideways tilt of a canine. It made her look a trifle like a movie star I’d seen in some old show.
“I just want to look over there.” I indicated the corner with the rug, even though I really didn’t expect to find anything in the attic. If someone had pushed the old man who had lived here down the main stairs where he’d been found dead, anything they’d touched or imprinted on should be closer to the crime scene. Then again, that same person could have been responsible for tagging all these items, so an imprint could be anywhere, and I’d already checked all the other rooms.
The attic was now becoming quite full of shoppers. The grungy man was gone, leaving the rug behind, but five other customers, one with a child in tow, had trekked up the narrow attic staircase.
“Why don’t you wait for me downstairs?” I told Paige. “You can help Shannon get my desk out to his truck.” Since we were undercover as bargain hunters, he’d brought his own vehicle instead of his unmarked white police Mustang.
Paige scanned the faces around us, probably searching for potential danger. The old women were examining the dish cabinet, only to be beaten out by a forty-something man wearing a bad toupee. I was glad for them because it wasn’t worth the asking price.
“All right,” Paige said. “Hurry, though. We still have one more to go today.”
“Just don’t scratch the desk.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She stepped around a young couple holding hands and headed with relief toward the stairs. Though she was only in her mid-twenties, there was a reason she’d made detective so early—one that didn’t take into account her family’s long history with law enforcement. Paige got her hands dirty if she had to, and she was a crack shot with her Glock 19, but she was serious and conservative by nature. Slumming through other people’s belongings was a tad beneath her, even if the items had a price tag she couldn’t afford on her detective’s salary.
I grinned at her retreating figure. Good thing she was dating a doctor, going on five months now. He’d even passed Shannon’s approval, though we had yet to go on a double date.
I wiped dusty hands on my jeans and padded my way to the rug in the corner. I never wore shoes if I could help it—due as much to my hippie, flower-child upbringing as to an old injury to my back. With bare feet, I felt closer to the earth, connected, though most people didn’t understand my feelings. Not even my twin, and she had been driven to jobs in three different states before finally finding me. I believed in fate only to a point. I knew Tawnia and I were invisibly connected in the same way I’d been connected to my adoptive parents. We belonged together.
I touched other tagged items on my way to the rug, testing for accusatory imprints. A dresser (trace of resentment), a trunk full of disintegrating clothes (sorrow), a lamp (nothing), a broken end table (faint burst of surprise followed swiftly by anger), and a doll covered in black marker (blissful preoccupation). No sign of a murder or a plot to swindle victims’ families. Shannon had to be wrong on whatever his gut was telling him.
A smile touched my lips as I anticipated telling him exactly how wrong. In fact, I was looking forward to it far more than I should. It had been a rather boring winter and spring these past five months since he and I had helped bring down a drug-smuggling and child-trafficking ring in Salem. Shannon had been forced to take two weeks off to recover from the gunshot wound in his thigh, and then his captain had sent him off to a training program for several weeks, probably to make sure he actually healed the rest of the way before getting shot again. When he’d returned, Shannon had been lent to Vice and had gone undercover for two months to help catch members of the Portland branch of the same drug ring we’d busted open in Salem. I hadn’t been invited along.
Shannon’s new work schedule had put a serious damper on our romantic intentions. I’d seen him only twice during his time undercover. Once when he’d come to my shop at closing time, dressed in a disguise, and we’d stolen kisses before he had to slink away. And another time he’d been waiting for me in my old rusty Toyota hatchback, and we’d laughed when once again it wouldn’t start.
I’d missed him, but maybe taking our relationship slow was the right thing to do. I still felt guilty about dumping my last boyfriend, Jake. Though he had remained my good friend, and we helped each other out in our connected shops, I knew Jake had been hurt when Shannon had come between us.
This week I’d seen Shannon every night except the two I dedicated to working out in my taekwondo black belt class. After our rocky start, I was beginning to think Shannon might just be the one. Which was good because I was thirty-four, and the birth of my niece nearly nine months earlier had me thinking of the future.
I reached the rolled-up rug and set my shopping bag containing the music box on a crate marked flannel. Gingerly, I brushed the surface. I’d learned to be careful. Strong imprints could trap me in a recurring loop from which I couldn’t break free. I didn’t want to pass out here without Paige or Shannon to guard my back.
The rug sported a detailed, elegant pattern that modeled an older style, but though I didn’t know as much about rugs as I did other antiques, I was certain this one was fairly new. It wasn’t worn or dirty, and it didn’t smell of the dust that plagued the rest of the attic. Even more interesting, my fingers tingled when I brushed the rug, hinting at strong imprints somewhere close. Not covering the entire rug, but focused, perhaps where someone had touched or lain, or cleaned a spot. People didn’t feel much passion at foot level, so these imprints might be important. Maybe even what we were looking for.
“There’s nothing else of value here,” announced the old woman who’d taken the child’s rocking chair. “We’d better hurry and check out the rest of the house, or maybe that other estate sale across town.” Her voice was authoritative, and shoppers gravitated to the stairway quickly in obvious hopes of beating the woman and her frail companion, who inched her way slowly across the attic. The man who’d decided on the dish cupboard enlisted another man to help him ease it down the steep stairs.
Ignoring them all, I unrolled the rug, trying to pinpoint the imprints. The rug was about my height in width, but much longer, likely used in a wide hallway. The price tag of three thousand dollars seemed ludicrous, unless it was a name brand I didn’t recognize—entirely possible since I dealt with old and not new furnishings. The back had a thin spongy layer that would make it skid resistant when placed on a wood floor or tile. Unlike the top of the rug, the off-white sponge showed a little bit of dirt.
The tingling became stronger.
All at once I found the imprint and . . . I was squatting in a dark hallway, lifting the corner of the rug. Just a tug and it would be over. My muscles bunched in preparation.
The imprint vanished as strong hands closed over my mouth and eyes, yanking me from the rug. My head twisted back as someone pulled me tightly against his chest.
A man’s chest. A man that wasn’t Shannon.
My martial arts training kicked in, and I began to struggle. The man behind me gasped as I elbowed his stomach, but the barrel of a gun jabbing into my side gave me pause.
“Don’t move,” a whispered voice growled. A second man.
Instinctively, I tried to look in his direction, but the man holding me kept my head still. The second man shoved a wad of cloth into my mouth, following it with a strip of tape plastered across my face. I could barely breathe. Another piece of cloth cinched tightly over my eyes and around my head.
Guess I’d found what I was looking for. There must be something forensics could find on the rug that would incriminate someone—and perhaps that person had stashed the rug here, hoping it would be overlooked. But how did that person know about my ability, or that I was working for the cops? With my jeans, my bare feet, and my short-cropped brown hair, dyed auburn on top, I didn’t look official by any means. Paige did, and even Shannon might be pegged, but I looked like a legit bargain hunter
“What now?” asked one of the men.
“Here.” A hand pushed me face first into the rug. The edges curled around my body, and I mentally berated myself for not fighting back. I might have survived a bullet, but if they got me out of here and someplace alone, I’d be in worse trouble. Besides, since being locked in a root cellar at a commune during one of my other cases, I’d become claustrophobic. Just thinking about being closed in brought on the panic.
As the rug squeezed tighter around me, the imprint began again. My arm or maybe my cheek was touching the place where it had been left.
I crouched in a dark hallway, lifting the edge of the rug. Just a tug and it would be over. My muscles tightened, ready to pull.
Footsteps in the darkness. A glimpse of pale feet. Waiting for the right moment. Waiting
Now. I pulled hard. A hoarse cry pierced the quiet night, followed by a loud crash. One more thud and then nothing.
All finished. Wait. My finger was bleeding on the rug. I needed to get out of the house before someone saw me.
Some part of me knew I was Autumn and that I was rolled in a rug. That part knew I had to struggle and fight so Shannon and Paige could find me. But I was caught in the imprint, the memory that wasn’t mine. Caught reliving again and again a murder in the dark.
They say your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness, but I never really understood that until I began to read imprints. Psychometry might be the name for my ability, but right now psycho might be a better one. I was trapped more surely by the imprint than the rug.
I pulled the rug again. The same crash and the same helpless scream.
I’d give a lot at this moment to be as blind as the rest of the world.
I never saw anything new when I experienced imprints for a second or additional time. Never. Sometimes I might forget something after seeing it only once, but the imprint itself didn’t change. What I saw came through the eyes of the person actually imprinting on an object, filtered through their experiences and intelligence. That meant imprints could often be misleading.
Not this one. Intent to harm was present. Determination. The act. What I couldn’t know, because the person hadn’t been thinking about it, was his motive or identity. It was so dark in the imprint that I couldn’t see anything besides the rug and a pale flash of feet down the hall, perhaps at the top of a staircase. I might be witnessing the homeowner’s cause of death.
I yanked the rug again. My victim fell.
No, it wasn’t me. I was Autumn—not whoever had left this imprint. That person was only worried about their job. About the blood.
Nausea threatened to choke me.
Why hadn’t the murderer destroyed the rug? Or if he worked for In Loving Memory, why hadn’t they discounted it and placed it in a prominent location so it would sell fast? The police obviously hadn’t considered the rug as evidence at the time of the owner’s death, but now that complaints had been filed, the murderer should be covering his tracks. It didn’t make sense to overprice the rug and hide it in the attic.
More important, why abduct me? Because I could feel that I was being carried down the stairs. Across a room.
I pulled the rug again.
My panic grew. Please, Shannon, I thought. Find me.
The tips of my toes jabbed into the stomach of one of the men, the rug not quite large enough to hide all of me. Would someone notice, or were the men wearing bulky enough clothing to hide what little of me emerged?
The moving stopped. “What a great choice,” a woman said. “I hope you realize, though, that this is a cash-only sale.”
I tried to scream, but I was too busy waiting for the flash of pale feet. Wait. Maybe I could use the imprint to my advantage.
Now! I lurched with the movement in the imprint, pulling the rug not only in my mind but also jerking my whole body.
My feet slammed against hard muscles, and then I was falling head first. Still firmly trapped inside the heavy rug.
“Oh, my,” the woman said to one of my captors. “Are you okay?”
“Just tripped,” the man grunted.
Again I waited in the dark. Waited for the pale feet.
A tear skidded down my cheek. My breath was hot.
My stomach heaved. I was probably going to suffocate. I jerked again with the pull of the rug, but this time my abductors were prepared.
“Thank you so much,” the woman trilled. “We hope you’ll attend one of our events again in the future. We have a sign-up sheet here if you’d like to be notified of other estate sales. No? All right. If you change your mind, please visit our website.”
Then we were moving again. I gasped for breath, willing myself to be calm so I wouldn’t suffocate. A little hard to do when reliving the thoughts of a murderer plotting to kill someone.
I heard a door open and felt the sensation of being dropped. My body seemed to be level, so the vehicle was probably a van.
“Hurry,” said a man’s voice.
“Shouldn’t we check her?”
“She’ll be okay. You felt the way she was moving.”
I saw the pale feet and jerked the rug again.
This time the action was less real, disembodied. Further away. I didn’t feel the roughness of the rug on my fingers. I did hear the crash and the scream. My head tumbled through black space as I fought to retain consciousness.