I was in my rusty red Toyota, heading south on Cesar E Chavez Boulevard toward my new client Luna Medina’s house, when Paige’s call came in.
I hit the speaker button on my phone, secured in the dash holder. “Hey, Paige,” I said. “Good to hear from you. What’s up?”
Paige Duncan was a homicide detective with the Portland Police Bureau and also my fiancé’s partner. She often called me in to consult, which was a fancy word for asking me to read scenes or emotions her perps might have imprinted on objects near the victims. It was a dubious honor, but today I was happy she’d called, even if it involved me in another murder case. I had a wedding to plan in less than three weeks, and I’d need both her and my sister’s help if it was going to be anything other than a trip to city hall.
“You have to come to the hospital,” Paige choked out. “Providence Portland Medical.”
Immediately, my mind jumped to the worst-case scenario. “Did something happen to Shannon?” Homicide detectives had enemies, I knew. There was always a chance he could be hurt by a vindictive criminal.
“No, it’s not that. He’s fine. He’s here with me, but I need you too. Can you come? Can you get someone to watch the store?”
I contemplated for less than two seconds. Luna Medina’s seventeen-year-old son was being investigated by the police for vandalism in the high school football equipment room, and his future was at risk, but the damage had taken place weeks ago, and a few hours delay shouldn’t make a difference.
“Thera’s at the shop already,” I said. “I have an appointment, but I’ll postpone it. But what’s wrong?”
“Not over the phone.” Her voice was a near whisper. “Just come as fast as you can. I’ll be in the lobby in the main entrance.”
“Okay. Sit tight. I’m coming.” I pulled over to the curb and grabbed my phone from the holder to double check directions. The Providence Portland Medical Center was on the east side of the Willamette and north of the Hawthorn District where my antiques shop was located. I’d been heading south toward Franklin High School, so I’d need to make a quick U-turn on the four-lane road.
As I waited for traffic to clear, I called Elliot Stone, aka Eli Stone, a local private investigator and computer guru who was working the Medina case with me. He’d helped me saved a family from death by poisoning, but this time his main goal was convincing me to partner with him on an ongoing basis. He felt his tech skills and my psychometry ability would make us unstoppable. I had to admit it was tempting, especially when any information I asked from the police department was scrutinized by Shannon Martin, my detective fiancé.
“Hey, Autumn,” Elliot said. “You almost here? I’m sitting outside their house now.”
“Sorry. Change of plans. The police called, and I’m not going to be able to make it until later. Can you do an initial interview and maybe reschedule for this afternoon? I’ll let you know what time I can make it if they’re available.”
“I guess.” He sounded anything but happy at the suggestion. “But I’d rather reschedule it altogether. You know I don’t like meeting at client’s houses. I only agreed to meet here because of your ability.”
“Fine. Whatever works.” Truthfully, he shouldn’t even be on the case. Luna Medina had used him to contact me after I’d rescued a biker from a serial killer, and it was me she wanted. I was guessing she hoped for that kind of miracle for her son. She didn’t even know I could read imprints, unless Elliot had filled her in.
“What about checking out the vandalized equipment room at the school?” he asked. “Will you still make that appointment? It’s at noon.”
“I remember. Don’t cancel yet. I don’t know how long I’ll be with the police.”
“Please try to make it,” Elliot said. “If Pax Medina is convicted, he’ll lose everything. He’s already lost his father.”
As if I needed reminding. My own father’s death was always in the back of my mind, and I felt for this boy. “I’m not giving up on the case. I just have to check in with the police.”
“Okay. I’ll do what I can.”
Having lived and worked in the Hawthorne District all my life, finding the nearby Providence Portland wasn’t hard once I got my bearings. Before going in, I pulled on a pair of wrist-length cotton gloves that I now bought in bulk. The ones I had today were skin color, which I hoped would make them less noticeable during the summer. Hospitals held more horrific imprints than I was willing to risk without a good reason.
I hurried quickly into the main entrance of the hospital, glad to be wearing one of my favorite summer dresses. If Paige wanted me in an official capacity, this was as dressed up as I ever got. As usual, I was sans shoes, and the cement was slightly cold on my bare feet, which hadn’t yet absorbed significant heat from the morning sun.
Paige was pacing inside the main entrance, her shoulder-length, iron-straight blond hair poking oddly out on one side. Her normally crisp navy suit was rumpled in front and stained with coffee. Not even after a shooting had I ever seen her anything but her usual calm and contained self. Maybe something had happened to her father or brother, who worked as detectives in another precinct. Or maybe her retired police chief grandfather had experienced a sudden heart attack.
“Autumn!” She threw herself into my arms, her strong, lean body propelling me backward. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
I could see Shannon farther inside the lobby, his dark blond hair curling on the ends as it always did when it got a tad too long for police bureau regulations. He was talking urgently with a burly, brown-headed man I pegged immediately as another detective, even in his civilian clothes, so I quickly revised my earlier guess about a medical emergency. Whatever happened was being investigated.
I hugged Paige, and she slumped against me. “What’s going on?” I asked, pulling back to see her face. “What can I do to help?”
“It’s Matthew,” she said, her pale blue eyes filling with tears. “He might be arrested for negligent homicide. He says he didn’t do anything wrong, but he worked a double shift, and they don’t believe him. I need you to read the syringes and everything else in the patient’s room to see if you can learn anything.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Matthew Kellogg was a doctor Paige had been dating for eight months. With all that had been going on between our cases and Matthew’s crazy schedule, we’d only gone out a few times as couples this past month, but I liked him immensely. He’d also passed all of Shannon’s non-official, probably slightly illegal background checks—and apparently her father’s as well, since he hadn’t ordered her to quit dating him.
“He didn’t do it.” Paige’s voice was shrill and bordered on panic. “Give the man too much drugs, I mean. Matthew’s a great cardiologist, and he knew the patient was on a daily nitroglycerin pill. He didn’t give him more than he should have.”
“Of course not.” I stood back and gripped her shoulders. “Look, take a deep breath. I need you to explain it to me. Like it’s a case.”
She stared at me as if wanting to punch me, so I widened my stance and prepared to block. I still sported a black half-moon under my left eye, a remnant from my biker case two weeks earlier, and I didn’t need another one before my wedding ceremony.
Abruptly, her shoulders sagged, and she nodded once, sharply. “Right, sorry. I just . . . I care about him.”
“Then let me help. That’s why I’m here.”
“Okay.” She took a deep breath. “I can do that.”
“Let’s go sit down.”
I led her across the tile that was cool to my bare feet, over to the carpeted area next to the chairs lining the far wall of the lobby. Shannon glanced our way, and for a moment our eyes locked. He looked strong, sure of himself, and determined, but I could see the concern in his strangely blue-green eyes that were unlike any I’d ever seen. Those eyes told me this was serious.
Paige settled into the padded brown chair, half turned to face me, her back toward Shannon and the burly detective. The man was vaguely familiar, but he stood sideways, and I didn’t have a clear glimpse of his face. I didn’t think he was an officer from Shannon and Paige’s precinct.
“A man named Peter Griffin came in two days ago because of kidney stones,” Paige started again, this time sounding calm, but her hands clenched tightly in her lap. “The non-evasive procedures either didn’t work or he wasn’t a candidate, so his doctor opted for a not very serious surgery that requires only one or two days in the hospital afterward. Matthew wasn’t his doctor for that, of course, since he works in cardiology, but Griffin was on nitroglycerin for heart pain—angina, I guess it’s called. Anyway, Griffin had been in such pain with the kidney stones that he hadn’t brought his heart medicine, so cardiology was called in to make sure he had his normal dose and that it was safe with the surgery. Matthew cleared him. Everything went well, and yesterday he was taken off the monitors. The nurses, of course, came in every four hours to take his vitals or give him medication. Griffin was supposed to go home this morning, but when the night nurse when to check on him shortly after four am, he was flushed and unresponsive. She acted quickly, but he had a massive heart-attack.”
I didn’t have to ask if he’d died. “The nurses only came around every four hours?”
“Well, for vitals. Because he wasn’t at risk or in any danger. The last time his blood pressure was taken was sometime around midnight, and the nurse said it was a little low, but nothing dangerous. But someone saw him at three to take blood for the night panel, and they didn’t report anything odd. When the results came back, though, they discovered that he had four times the normal level of nitrates in his blood. They won’t know for sure until the autopsy, but they think it lowered his blood pressure so much that his organs were starved—and failed.”
“And he’d shown no signs of stress before that? Did anyone check on him between midnight and three?”
“I don’t know.” Paige glanced backward again at Shannon and the other detective. “I’ve been here since six, after Matthew finally called me. They questioned him for hours, and he’s still here somewhere with the hospital attorney and the administrator.” She stopped talking, placing her hand over her mouth as if to hold back sobs. She stayed that way for a full minute, while I gazed at her helplessly.
When she eventually pulled her hand away and continued, she had regained her calm. “Everyone is looking for someone to blame. The family is claiming that Matthew must have given him too much heart medication—or told the nurses to—or that he didn’t understand how it would interact with his other drugs. I understand they’re heartbroken, but Matthew’s a good doctor. He wouldn’t make this kind of mistake. But the hospital put him on leave until the autopsy results.”
“The truth will come out,” I said squeezing her arm. “The patient must have had numerous blood tests, and those will back him up and clear Matthew.”
“Unless it’s one of those strange, freaky things and no one ever uncovers a reason. Something like that could still destroy his career.” She bit her lip, her breath coming faster. “Oh, I know that’s terrible to think about when a man is dead, but Matthew doesn’t deserve this. He’s a good man. What if someone hurt his patient purposely, or if someone else messed up, how will we ever know? By the time we have anything to go on, the room will be cleaned out and all the evidence gone.”
Maybe Paige had been working homicide too long and now saw murder everywhere. Or maybe she simply wanted to save the man she loved from more heartache. Either way, she was my friend and Shannon’s partner. She’d supported me when other officers had decried my ability as fake, and she’d been the first to offer support when Shannon had finally come to his senses and asked me out. The least I could do was to use my ability to check for abnormalities.
“Of course,” I said, lifting up my glove-covered hands. “Where do I start?”
She twisted in her seat to study the detective with Shannon. “Ask my brother. It’s his case since he works in the East Precinct. I called him right after I called Shannon, because I knew we’d never be allowed to work the case. Quincy doesn’t believe it was murder, but he does want to make sure no one else made a mistake. It’s possible someone didn’t record the meds and gave Griffin a double dose or something. But if you find any clue that someone else may be involved, he and Shannon already have a list of all the visitors that came to the hospital after ten. They’re required to sign in after that and get a wristband.”
The men became aware of our attention and motion to us. “Maybe you should go home,” I said to Paige as I stood. “I promise I’ll be thorough.”
She shook her head. “I’m going to wait here for Matthew. He texted me that he’d be out in a while. This is ripping him in two. I’m taking a few personal days to be with him.”
At any other time, that would have made me tease her. Coming from a police career family, “personal days” weren’t words I’d thought were in her vocabulary.
“Okay,” I said. “If you need anything, let me know.”
I left her there staring at her phone, probably waiting for a text. Shannon took a few steps to meet me, his strong arm slipping around my waist, his movements taut and graceful. He was only a few inches taller than I was, his hair a color between brown and blond, slightly bleached by the sun. He kissed my cheek, and I caught the scent of his aftershave.
“My fiancé, Autumn Rain,” he said, introducing me to the other detective.
“Yes, I think we met briefly once before. I’m Paige’s brother, Quincy Duncan.” Quincy extended a hand with an engaging smile. He was taller than Shannon by an inch but was half again as wide, his muscles hinting at a love of lifting weights. “I’m glad to have a chance to work with you, though I’m sorry it has to be like this.” He flashed me another friendly, open smile. Though he was an attractive man, the only thing that resembled his sister were the pale blue eyes.
“Yeah, that’s why you look familiar.” I shook his hand. I remembered now that Shannon, Paige, Matthew, and I had run into him once at a movie theater. “Have you been assigned the case?” I wanted to make sure. On my last case, I’d been at odds with the detective, and though he’d come through for me in the end, it hadn’t been a comfortable working environment.
He nodded. “I’ve made sure of it for Paige, but I have to tell you, my chief isn’t happy. We’ve never seen a case like this that’s an actual homicide, so he’d rather assign one of the newbies. It’s probably a mistake, and one not large enough to be negligent homicide. Someone forgot to write down something they gave him, is my guess.”
“Four times the nitrates is a little more than one mistake,” Shannon said.
Quincy inclined his head. “Maybe, unless there were other interactions or conditions we’re not aware of yet. Ordinarily, I’d wait for the autopsy before investigating further, but the medical examiner is backed up and we may not get results until late tomorrow, if we’re lucky. And if I can do anything to help Matthew in the meantime, I’m glad to do it.” His smile was tighter now. “Paige really loves this guy, and she hasn’t had it easy in that department. She’s too driven for the average Joe, and she has to maintain distance with her colleagues to avoid rumors. You didn’t hear it from me, but more than a few of my fellow officers are, well, pigs. Too many are still prejudiced about female officers, especially one as smart as my sister.”
Shannon’s lips twitched at that, but when he spoke it was only to say, “Your sister’s smarts are exactly why I think we need to make sure we cover all our bases. Matthew’s a good doctor and this is an excellent hospital. Something isn’t right.”
A shudder passed through me, as if a wind had blown an icy current into the lobby. Shannon’s gaze went to my hands, his shoulders tense, but he relaxed when he saw nothing amiss. No, I wasn’t reading imprints. I’d just felt cold all of a sudden. I crossed my arms to rub my hands up and down over the goose bumps.
“You have a sweater in the car?” Shannon asked.
But the cold feeling vanished as quickly as it had come. “I’m okay. Sometimes hospitals get to me, even without touching anything. There’s a lot of emotion imprinted everywhere here.”
Quincy grinned at me and his eager expression reminded me of the first time I’d met Paige. She’d been hungry to see me at work, and so was he.
“Let’s get to it.” I said.
Ten minutes later, we were in a surprisingly large hospital room blocked not by yellow crime tape but with a Do Not Enter sign. I hadn’t expected the body to be there, but the bed wasn’t either.
“Where’s the bed?” I asked. “He could have imprinted on that before he died. I need to see it.”
Quincy nodded. “We’ll have to ask the nurse. The medical examiner’s office came to collect the body once the hospital reported the suspicious death, but I would have assumed the bed would have come back here afterward.”
“Maybe they disinfect the bed before returning it,” Shannon said.
They stared at each other for a moment before Shannon added, “Since it’s your case, I guess you’ll have to ask the nurses. And sooner rather than later so the bed doesn’t get lost. I’ll make sure we don’t disturb anything in case Autumn uncovers something criminal.”
What Shannon wasn’t saying was that there was no way he’d leave me alone. I was getting better at extracting myself from nasty recurring imprints, but he remembered too vividly how an overdose of imprints less than two months ago had robbed me of my ability altogether. It was why I’d taken to wearing gloves when I wasn’t reading imprints.
Quincy glanced my way. “Don’t finish before I get back. I want to see this imprint thing at work.”
“After we’re finished, we should probably block off the room until we have the autopsy results,” Shannon added. “Just in case CSI ends up needing to go over it.”
“I still say the death was probably due to a clerical error.” Quincy started for the door. “But we can do that.”
“I’ll need to check with a nurse also before looking at the empty syringes,” I said, motioning to the red disposal unit.
“Okay, I’ll be right back with someone.” Quincy gave me a final reluctant glance before leaving the room.
When he was gone, I pulled off the gloves and tucked them into my purse before hanging it on the door hook. Next, I removed my three antique rings that gave off comforting imprints. My engagement ring was locked in the safe at my shop so I wouldn’t accidentally leave negative emotions on it while chasing imprints, but these would help me settle down afterward. For now, I put them in my dress pocket.
“So far no imprints on the floor,” I said, looking down at my toes. “But that might have as much to do with the shoes required sign on the door downstairs as it does with those funny blue non-slip socks they make patients wear.”
“Good to know you at least saw the sign.” Smiling, Shannon lowered himself to a chair to watch me work.
“Oh, I saw it.” Since it was a private hospital, they could enforce the policy, but going without shoes wasn’t against the law, not even in government buildings, though officers had threatened to ticket me before. Because most shoes threw out my back, I’d done without them for most of my flower-child upbringing, and now it was part of who I was.
Shannon laughed. “Right. Anyway, I’ve already been over this room with Paige earlier, and nothing seems out of place.”
“Poor Matthew if this does turn out to be some sort of freak mistake.” This would haunt him, especially if the death remained unexplained.
I held my hands over the sink and computer area. The tingling of my fingers told me there were imprints everywhere. “There’s a lot here,” I told Shannon. My stomach twisted at the thought of reading so many scenes and emotions. I’d eaten a double breakfast knowing I was investigating today at the high school, but I was going to need more sustenance by the time this was over.
Shannon leaned forward in his chair. “Maybe they’re not recent imprints. Unless it turns out they’ve had other questionable deaths on this floor, you only need to go back two days.” He sighed. “Great, speaking of that, I guess we’ll have to research if there were other questionable deaths, won’t we?”
I nodded. “Yep, but for now, I’ll limit it to last Saturday.”
As I read imprints, I always see the most recent one first, and my mind pulls up an imaginary calendar narrowed to the date and time of the event. Imprints older than a few months were more difficult to pinpoint exact times, but general dates were accurate enough for most investigations.
I checked the sink in several places with the knuckle of my right hand, finding nothing earlier than a week ago—and that was from the sister of a patient as she refilled her water bottle. The computer keyboard, the monitors, and the walls also showed nothing recent except vague hurry. In contrast, the medicine drawer held a vivid imprint from a month earlier when a nurse clumsily opened it as her patient screamed in pain.
I’d been lucky that so far the most recent imprints from the patients or their families had been hopeful or positive. It seemed most people placed in this room had recovered.
“I’m guessing the gloves the staff wear cuts down on imprints,” I said, moving to a small couch against the wall. “So even though there are a lot of imprints, the ones from the hospital staff are older. Most of what I’m finding is from patients’ families, some dating back to last week but some also from months ago. It helps not to have to read more than the first one or two.”
The couch tingled with a strong imprint. I touched it gingerly, finding a happy imprint from last Saturday. I let it play out.
He was going to be all right! Yes, they’d told me it was only minor surgery, but I’d worried that his previous bouts of bleeding ulcers might cause complications.
“Peter,” I told him, “this is proof that you’re still working too hard.”
He tilted his head back and laughed, looking every bit as handsome as when we’d married thirty-two years ago, despite his now salt and pepper hair. “I don’t think kidney stones are caused by stress. Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that I’ve been listening. I was going to wait to surprise you, but now’s a good a time as any.” His smile grew wide. “I bought tickets last Thursday for that trip to Venice you always wanted. We leave in four weeks.”
Excitement flooded me. “Really? But what about the product launch? You still have two months left.”
“Now that we’re in production, it’s all up to marketing and shipping, and I have good people over those. I can leave for two weeks. Then I’ll be back for the launch.”
“Good,” I said, leaning forward to push myself to my feet. “Until Venice, then. I’m holding you to it.”
The imprint cut off abruptly as whoever had made it—presumably Peter’s wife—stood and her hand lost contact with the couch cushion.
The hopeful scene was quickly replaced by a resentful imprint from a man wishing he were at work instead of his mother’s bedside after her gall bladder surgery last Wednesday. I withdrew my hands quickly, glad when the blatant self-concern of the imprint was covered by a rush of pity for the old woman. My pity, not the spoiled son’s. Sometimes it was hard to compartmentalize.
Peter Griffin’s wife had left another brief imprint on the bedside table that had been moved to the side, but it didn’t seem important. Nothing radiated from the two portable shelves that stood against the wall.
Shannon popped to his feet. “Here’s the chair.”
I touched it with the tip of a finger, and instantly my breath was ripped from my chest.
I gripped the armrests as I collapsed into the chair, unable to remain on my feet a second longer. Peter couldn’t be dead. His handsome face looked peaceful, as if sleeping, but his cheeks were beginning to swell. That threw everything off. He didn’t look like my Peter. But one thing was certain: the man in the bed wouldn’t be going with me to Venice.
Grief flooded me at the thought. I’d found the flight reservations in his office at home, in a manila envelope with hotel information. On the outside, he’d written, Until we meet in Venice. It was a silly thing I’d started saying to him this past year whenever he worked late, and he’d joked right back.
There’d be no more joking now.
Tears leaked down my face. “I don’t understand,” I said to his cardiologist, the kind-eyed Dr. Kellogg. “They said he was fine. He was supposed to go home this morning. How could his heart just stop?”
It seemed more unreal now that I’d said the words aloud. My husband was strong, he had always been strong. He had never needed me or anyone else. How could he be dead?
“We don’t know exactly what happened,” Dr. Kellogg said, his voice wavering slightly. “We tried to resuscitate him. We shocked his heart. We did everything we could. I’ve double-checked his meds, and there is nothing that indicates why his blood pressure dipped so low. We won’t know more until we get the results of the autopsy.”
They were going to cut Peter open. More tears escaped my eyes and slid down my face. I didn’t bother to wipe them away.
Dr. Kellogg retreated a step, then two. “You take as long as you want with him. Let the nurse know when you’re ready, and we’ll take care of the rest. We’ll need to know what mortuary you’ll be using.”
“How do we know your doctors will even report what they find in the autopsy?” said a male voice behind me.
I turned to look up at my son Niklas, who had spoken. He stood next to his brother, Stevan. I was glad to have both my strong sons at my side. Niklas gave me a tight smile and put a comforting hand on my shoulder.
Dr. Kellogg paused at the door. “The hospital has already called the medical examiner. That’s protocol in a situation like this. They’ll be thorough. We all want answers.”
At least the man didn’t talk about closure, although he probably wanted to. He looked exhausted, and for the first time I wondered how long he’d been at work. At least since Peter died during the night—and probably longer.
No, Peter couldn’t be dead. This couldn’t be happening. It was all a terrifying dream.
A weight seemed to crush my chest. “I need a breath of air,” I said. “Please help me up.”
Niklas bent down and put an arm around me. “You don’t have to worry, Mom,” he whispered in my ear. “He’ll never hurt any of us again.”
The heartbreaking imprint vanished, leaving me bereft and more than a little confused. It seemed Peter Griffin wasn’t the perfect husband or father the casual observer might believe him to be. It was clear that at least one of his sons didn’t seem to be mourning his death.
“You okay?” Shannon’s hand gently massaged my neck.
I nodded but didn’t speak because another imprint was beginning, also from someone visiting Peter Griffin, this time while the man was still alive.
“You just get well,” I told Peter. “I’ll make sure the finances are ready for Futura’s release.” I needed to hold him off until the launch. Then I could replace the money, and he’d never know.
“I still want to see the books,” Peter insisted, his square jaw lifting slightly.
Dread filled me. I had to prevent that at any cost. Good thing I had an alternate plan. “Of course. Any time. Well, I’d better get going and let you rest.”
“I am a little tired. I appreciate the visit, Robby. Good night, and thanks for the card.”
I lifted my hand from the chair with a sigh.
“What is it?” Shannon asked.
“Peter Griffin’s family might not be all that sad about his death. And a man named Robby from his work came to visit at nine-thirty last night. He definitely had a secret he was trying to keep from Peter.”
“A secret important enough to kill for?”
I couldn’t deny that the mysterious Robby’s alternate plan might involve murder. “I don’t know, but we owe it to Paige and Matthew—and Peter Griffin—to find out.”