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I lifted the Ruger LCP .380, racked it quickly, and fired. Three shots in rapid succession—boom, boom, boom. Three more shots emptied the magazine. My target jerked repeatedly. Not unlike the jolting of my heart.
“Not bad.” Detective Shannon Martin looked over my shoulder at the man-shaped paper target. Four of the rounds had hit the chest. Another went through the head. Only one was missing. “You sure you haven’t done this before?” he asked.
“No,” I snapped. Just now and the last time.” Truth was, I didn’t want to be doing this now. My consulting position with the Portland police had led to my being imprisoned in an underground cellar, shot in the leg, and injured in numerous other ways, but carrying a gun was going too far. With my flower child upbringing, I doubted I could shoot anyone, even if my life depended on it.
“What’s wrong?” Shannon’s eyes went from my face to the Ruger and back again. “You aren’t picking up any imprints, are you?”
We were alone inside the range, so I pushed off the earmuffs he’d insisted I wear to protect my ears—great idea, it turned out. “No imprints,” I said.
Well, there was one faint feeling of satisfaction that Shannon had left when he’d shot the gun a week earlier, and even now I was probably leaving a few of resentment and maybe a little pride. Fortunately, these less vivid imprints didn’t bother me.
“The older lady I bought it from said she’d shot it only a few times,” he added.
“You know that if I ever actually used this on someone, I’d never be able to use it again. I’d have to relive the memory every time I touched it.”
He shrugged. “I’d just find you another one.”
I guess as a police detective that didn’t bother him—shopping for guns, the possibility of shooting someone. All of it bothered me. I believed people had the right to defend themselves, but it was quite another thing to be the one actually pulling the trigger.
“Can we quit now?” I started to hand him the gun, barrel down, the way he’d drilled me these past few weeks as I’d practiced gun safety off the range.
“Not yet. You have to shoot at least a hundred rounds a month to stay in practice—and that’s assuming you’re hitting anything, which you are, fortunately. Now load her up again.”
“A hundred? Please tell me rounds are individual bullets and not a whole clip.” We’d been shooting together only once before, and I couldn’t remember the terminology.
My faulty memory might have a remote—a very remote—connection to his unusual eyes. There’s something about them. Something, perhaps, in the green blue color that illuminated his face. Or maybe it was the framing of his light brown lashes that made them so compelling. It was hard to think about anything else if I became caught in his gaze, so mostly I tried not to look.
“Magazine,” he corrected. “It’s not a clip. I know people call them that, but that’s not what they are. The magazine is what holds the rounds—in this case, six rounds. And yes, rounds are individual bullets.”
So six bullets went into the magazine, which in turn slid into the bottom of the gun grip, or handle as we rookies called it. Not rocket science by any stretch. Sighing internally, I pushed the magazine release button, placed the gun on the small stand in front of me, and began forcing bullets into the magazine.
Shannon stopped me when I went to put it back in. “Visually check the chamber first, just to make sure nothing’s caught.”
I did as he asked before proceeding to shred more of my target. Like the previous time we’d come to the range, Shannon seemed more puzzled than pleased at my success.
I didn’t see what was so hard. You aimed and you shot. It was, well, rather easy. Kind of fun too, which I would never confess to Shannon. I derived a strange sort of contentment from irritating him, a trait he definitely shared when it came to me.
I shrugged. “I have good eyesight.” Once again, I had to raise my voice to near yelling because of our earmuffs.
“All those herbs?” he mouthed a bit derisively, pushing the box of bullets at me.
I didn’t take offense. Everyone was entitled to his opinion—even the annoying Detective Martin. My adoptive parents had been self-proclaimed hippies who owned an herb store, so naturally I’d consumed more than my share of herbs. Growing up with them had been unusual, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything—well, except maybe the opportunity to grow up with my twin, but that couldn’t be changed now.
“Satisfied?” I asked when the man-shaped target finally tore in two at the chest and fell to the ground.
Shannon allowed himself a grin. “I’ve seen longtime police officers do worse.”
Not exactly a compliment, but Shannon was careful that way. Maybe it was because he liked me far more than he wanted to. Or maybe because he’d finally started to trust both me and my weird gift of reading imprints—and begun to realize that there was nothing holding him back from his attraction to me now.
Nothing except my boyfriend, Jake, and my own reluctance to trust a man who until a few months ago thought I was mostly nuts.
Shannon was staring at me with those eyes that were probably responsible for more convictions than any detective work he’d ever done. I looked instead into his hairline. His hair, usually somewhere between brown and blond, was on the darker side now that we were in November. He needed a haircut, and the ends were beginning to curl with the length.
For a long time he didn’t speak, though the air was suddenly heavy with whatever he’d left unspoken. Carefully, he began packing things away. He handed me the Ruger, zipped in a lightly padded cover.
“Keep it in your purse until I get you an ankle holster. There’s an extra magazine in there, too. I’ve filled it with hollow points for a bigger impact.”
“No way.” I pushed the weapon back at him. “I don’t even use a purse half the time.”
“Well, you can’t carry it on you without a holster.”
“I’m not going to carry it at all.”
“What do you think that class and all that fingerprinting was about? Your concealed-carry permit arrived in the mail, didn’t it? You should have it on you at all times, whether you’re carrying or not, in case you end up with a gun while working a case.”
Okay, I had taken a class on gun safety and found it interesting. Since I’d been shot in the leg during our last adventure and had somehow ended up with the gun, albeit unloaded, I’d wanted to feel more comfortable with handguns in case such a thing ever happened again. But I wouldn’t have taken the class at all if I’d known Shannon was going to insist that I carry a weapon.
“I’ve got the permit in my wallet, but I read that women who own guns are more likely to be shot than those who don’t,” I told him.
He snorted. “That’s only women who aren’t trained and who aren’t going to practice every few weeks.” He scrubbed a hand over his hair, and I followed the motion. “Speaking of which, there is a more intensive training I’d like you to attend. It’s only three days. You get great target practice in a lifelike town. With popup targets and stuff.”
“No, no, and no! Look, I have a niece now, and I can’t have a gun around my apartment or at my store. If you make me take it, I’m just going to put it in my glove compartment.”
“You don’t even lock your car.” The way he said car left me no doubt that he didn’t believe my rusty Toyota hatchback was worthy of the name. He might have a point. It was always breaking down.
“Oh, right. Guess that sets me up for all kinds of liability.”
“Yeah, the jail kind.”
He was kind of cute when he was upset, though that was certainly not why I was arguing with him.
“Look,” he continued, “your niece is only, what, three months old? It’s going to be a while before she can rack and shoot a gun. By then you’ll have a safe installed.”
“At the department’s expense?” They’d agreed to start paying me a consulting fee for reading imprints, but it wasn’t a lot.
At this point, he’d say whatever he needed to make me take the gun, but I doubted the safe would come from the department. They didn’t care if I carried a gun. They’d probably rather I didn’t. But Shannon was president of the Autumn Needs to Be More Careful Club, which meant he cared about me. I wished he didn’t. It made my life more complicated.
I took the gun and put it in my coat pocket. “There’s not a bullet in the chamber, is there?”
“No. You’d have to rack it before you could shoot. But you should have checked yourself if that’s the way you plan to carry it. Remember the class?”
“Oh, right.” I wouldn’t carry the gun with a bullet in the chamber like he did, though my permit gave me license to do so. I didn’t trust it not to go off accidentally, but unless I racked it, it couldn’t fire, so I was safe.
Outside it was raining. Again. The wind was also doing its thing, which made Portland bitterly cold this time of year. Shannon glanced instinctively at my feet, perhaps forgetting that during the most bitter winter months, even I usually wore something to cover my feet when I went outside. Instead of my customary winter moccasins, today I wore the boots my sister, Tawnia, had given me—no heel, fur-lined, and advertised as footwear that made you feel as if you were barefoot. They were almost like wearing thick socks, but unlike the socks I occasionally resorted to, they were waterproof. I hated not feeling a connection with the earth as I normally did in bare feet, but cold weather like this usually convinced me to use the boots or my moccasins.
I’d begun using gloves as well, something I’d occasionally done before in winter, though not for the same reason I used them now. Gloves protected me from accidentally finding random imprints and reliving experiences that weren’t mine.
Of course, I wasn’t prepared to wear gloves all the time. My shoe-hating, herb-loving, spirit-connected-to-the-universe upbringing wouldn’t let me go that far. But sometimes after stumbling on a particularly virulent imprint, I was tempted.
Zipping my coat, I ran to Shannon’s truck. Yes, a truck. I knew his house was built on an acre of land, so it made sense he might need a truck for something related to that, but I’d been so accustomed to seeing him in his white, unmarked police Mustang that when he’d come to pick me up, I’d felt a little taken aback. For some reason the blue truck made him seem more real—normal, maybe. Almost as though I’d seen a part of him that was too private to share.
It’s just a truck, I told myself.
The weight of the Ruger felt heavy in my coat pocket. At least it could sit in a drawer at my antiques shop while I was working. My niece wasn’t old enough even to crawl yet, much less open a drawer. Before much longer, though, it’d have to be in a safe or in a holster.
The idea of needing a gun was enough to make me seriously consider getting out of the imprint business. Except I didn’t choose to read imprints. That just happened.
Psychometry was the official name of my ability to pick up scenes and emotions left on certain beloved objects or on objects involved in extremely emotional situations. I used my talent to find missing people, and the police used it through me. Some scientists believed that people like me developed part of our brains that ordinarily remained inactive. For all I knew, they were right. I suspected it was also hereditary, though because I was adopted, I wasn’t sure where the ability had come from.
“Who’s that?” Shannon asked.
We’d arrived outside my shop, where a bundled figure was pacing in front of my store. My employee, Thera Brinker, should be inside, but even if she wasn’t and the door was still locked, all my customers knew they could reach Autumn’s Antiques from the Herb Shoppe next door, owned by my friend and current boyfriend, Jake Ryan. Or I should say maybe-boyfriend, because even nearly six months into our relationship, we weren’t exactly sure where things were heading.
The person outside was not a customer, then, but someone else waiting to see me.
“I don’t know.” I peered at the tall figure. Besides the fact that the person was likely male, I couldn’t see much beyond the coat and the beanie he wore. I started to open the truck door.
“Wait. I’m coming with you.”
I sighed. Shannon had been annoying before he’d stopped being so suspicious of me, but this was ridiculous. Ignoring him, I jumped from the truck and hurried toward my store. The figure stopped pacing when he saw me.
“Autumn,” he said, giving me a tentative smile. “Hey, are your eyes two different colors or is it just the light?”
I’d know that smile anywhere—and the familiar greeting. My eyes were a different color, but only those who really saw me ever actually noticed. “Is that you, Bean Pole? Did you grow another three inches? Long time no see.”
It’d been months, in fact, since I’d seen Liam Taylor. At least seven.
Liam nodded. “I need to talk to you. It’s important.” Before I could respond, his gaze went beyond me to Shannon, who’d finally caught up to us.
“Is he a cop?” Liam asked in an undertone.
If Liam hadn’t been so serious, I might have laughed. He’d made Shannon as a cop dressed in civilian clothes on a Saturday afternoon. In the rain. That said a lot about Shannon—or about Liam. I hoped it was about Shannon and not Liam because I’d thought he’d come a long way since I first caught him shoplifting in my store.
“Why? You got something to hide?” Trust Shannon to make a comeback like that.
“Shannon’s a friend,” I said to Liam, throwing Shannon a glare. “What do you need to see me about?”
Liam shivered. “Can we go inside? I brought you something to, uh, see.”
He meant something to read, as in imprints. A knot formed inside me. I hoped he wasn’t in trouble. Either way, I had to get Shannon out of the picture.
“Okay, just a minute and we’ll go inside.” I turned to Shannon. “Thanks for the lesson.”
“You sure you don’t want me to stay?” He was using his eyes to full advantage, as if he knew their effect on me.
“I’m fine. Jake’s next door if I need help.”
Shannon stiffened. Wrong thing to say, but he knew my feelings for Jake, and I wasn’t going to start hiding them now simply because I was also attracted to Shannon.
“Liam’s harmless,” I added. “He used to work for me.”
Only a little bit of a stretch. I’d put Liam to work after I’d caught him shoplifting one of my antique music boxes last year. He’d seemed sincere when he said it was to send to his sister for her birthday. I hadn’t simply given it to him like my father would have done—or invited him to dinner and ask if he needed a place to stay. I was too poor to go that far. But I had let him work off the music box in exchange for helping move and arrange my displays. I even gave him the music box wholesale so he wouldn’t have to work more than a few days.
After that, I’d given him several more odd jobs I could barely afford whenever he was desperate, just enough to keep him honest. Then he’d graduated from high school and found a real job for the summer. He was supposed to be in college now, living on a merit scholarship and a bit of help from his parents.
“I’ll call you about the safe.” Shannon’s eyes followed Liam, who was already opening the door to my store.
It was awkward leaving Shannon, though it hadn’t always been. Now I never knew if I should hug him or say something to push him away. Lately, I’d really, really wanted not to push him away, but there was still Jake, and I didn’t want to hurt him.
I followed Liam into my store and motioned him to wait in the back room so I could help Thera with the rush of people. Normally, I would have taken time to at least wave to Jake, but there was no chance of that now. Saturday mornings were always brisk in the antiques shop, and I had to hurry from my early morning taekwondo class to get there in time to help. The afternoons usually picked up from there. It was good for my pocketbook, though it made it hard to dart out at lunchtime for a brief shooting lesson. Unfortunately, Saturday was the only time Shannon was available during the day, and an evening seemed too much like a date to me.
“How did the lesson go?” Thera asked. As usual her white hair was swept up in an elegant knot, and she was wearing all blue, which she insisted was a calming color.
That reminded me of the weight in my coat pocket, one I couldn’t rid myself of in front of my customers. “Apparently, I’m a natural.”
“I thought you might be. You have good instincts.”
I shrugged off the coat and set it under the counter, followed by my boots. I wiggled my freed toes and sighed with relief.
“Well, about most things,” amended Thera, glancing at my feet in disapproval. She was always worried I’d catch my death of cold, even in midsummer, or contract some strange illness, no matter how many times I told her I washed my feet more than most people washed their hands—and how she touched a lot worse things on doorknobs. She didn’t want to hear it.
“I hope you got a chance to grab some lunch,” she added, “because it’s been like this the whole time you were gone.”
“I did.” We’d eaten sandwiches Shannon had bought on our way to the range. I felt bad for leaving Thera on a day when it was so busy, but Shannon had been insistent. He obviously still felt responsible for the last time I’d been hurt.
When we were down to the last customer at the register and two more who were browsing, Thera turned to me, waving a blue-clad arm. “I can take care of the rest. That boy seems kind of anxious. He’s poked his head out half a dozen times already.”
In my narrow back room, which ran the width of my store, Liam wasn’t sitting in the comfortable easy chair that beckoned to me with an almost hypnotic call. He’d taken off his coat and laid it on the long worktable but was pacing from the shop door to the bathroom at the far end. He was as lanky as always—college life hadn’t improved that—and his hair looked as though he hadn’t combed it in a week, though it didn’t seem greasy.
“So what’s up?” I asked, ignoring my easy chair and going to heat water on the stove so I could make a nice soothing herbal tea. I wanted to ask if he was in trouble, but he’d come to me, and I’d let him tell me what he wanted in his own time. I took two mugs from the overhead cupboard.
“It’s Rosemary, my sister.”
I turned to look at him more closely. His brown eyes were worried and tinged with red that probably came from too many late nights and cram study sessions. “Is it her birthday again? Do you need a present? How about another music box?”
My attempt to lighten the mood didn’t even register. “She’s missing,” he said.
“What makes you say that?”
He stopped pacing and pulled at the side of his hair. “She was supposed to meet me yesterday for lunch when she had a rehearsal break, but she never showed up.”
“Maybe she forgot.”
“She wouldn’t do that. We haven’t seen each other in like a year. She’s not even answering her cell. I’d go to her apartment, but I don’t know where she’s staying. My parents say she’s a flake and not to worry, but that’s only because they’re still mad about how she dropped out of college to tour with that theater company a couple of years ago.”
I had to play devil’s advocate. “What makes you think they’re wrong?” I placed loose tea in the infuser. Lemon balm, Liam’s favorite, with no caffeine or anything else to get him more worked up.
“She’s only been back a few weeks, and she wouldn’t leave without seeing me. We’ve talked a lot on the phone, and she was all excited about a new part she was trying out for with some other theater company. Said it was a smaller outfit but with better connections. She practiced day and night to get the part, and then she did. She was so excited. I know she wouldn’t just disappear. I went over to the company, but she hadn’t shown up to rehearsal yesterday.” His eyes held mine. “Please, Autumn. I don’t know who else can help.”
“Maybe the police.”
“That’s why I asked if that guy was a cop. I thought I recognized him from the newspaper article about that real estate fraud business going on last summer. I was hoping he was and that you might get him to help.”
Oh, I’d read that situation completely wrong. I’d been thinking Liam’s problems were the kind that bordered on unlawful and that it’d be easier to convince him to make good without Shannon hovering over us menacingly.
“Well, she’s an adult with a history of taking off, so the more proof we have, the better. But if your sister really is missing, we’ll need to let the police search for her. They have information I don’t have access to.”
“Yeah, but they can’t read imprints.” He crossed to the worktable and yanked a plastic grocery sack from the pocket of his coat—a deep pocket by the size of whatever was in the bag. “She had a cubby at the theater company. I took these from it when they weren’t looking.” Liam flushed. “It wasn’t stealing.”
“Of course not.” I took a deep breath. Probably these imprints wouldn’t tell me anything. Since the items had simply been sitting on her shelf, it wasn’t likely I’d have to relive a murder or a kidnapping.
Liam waited, the sack extended. Before taking it, I removed the antique rings I wore to dull any unexpected imprints I might accidentally touch when I was out and about. When I wasn’t wearing gloves, that is. The rings held comforting imprints that would counter any negative ones, but they would also get in the way of my perception if the imprints I wanted to read weren’t very strong.
Months had passed since I’d come across a seriously evil imprint, but I remembered how it had sapped my strength. I’d wondered what might happen if someday I went too deep, if the imprint was too intense, too horrible.
There was no one to ask, so I had no clue. I’d been helping Shannon and his partner, Paige, on cases, but I suspected Shannon had deliberately kept me from consulting on the really bad ones—murders, rapes, brutal muggings. I hadn’t pushed. Now I felt guilty. While I was protecting myself, how many more people had been hurt?
I reached for the grocery sack. Liam watched me intently, not pushing. He was that sort of kid. Patient, studious, dedicated to his sister. Dedicated enough to steal an antique music box for her.
Gently, I shook out the contents of the sack onto the worktable—a worn copy of a play script, a square bag with a makeup brush peeking from one end of the zippered top, a pair of leather gloves, a brush, and a small see-through purse filled with elastics, hair clips, and bobby pins. It wasn’t much, but if she’d used these objects every day, there might be imprints.
Probably not on the gloves, though they were leather and had a better chance than regular cloth. Clothes that were often washed and things easily dismissed or forgotten never evoked enough emotion to hold imprints. Fortunately, or my life would be a living nightmare. I’d have to wear gloves to buy fruit and milk at the corner grocery.
There were definitely imprints on the objects. I could feel them radiating, beckoning. What I couldn’t tell without touching them was if they were positive or negative imprints. If I could figure that out, my life would be a lot simpler.
“Autumn,” came a voice from the door.
I lifted my gaze to see Jake’s good-looking face, framed by his black, finger-sized locs, or dreadlocks as some people called them, that always made people stop and notice. In his customary snug T-shirt, he looked strong and a little dangerous, but anyone seeing him help fragile old ladies in his herb shop would change their minds about that in a hurry. He’d been my best friend for nearly two years and a little bit more than my friend since this past summer. I’d trust him with my life.
His eyes took in the objects Liam had brought and the antique rings I’d set down next to them. A flash of hurt registered on his face. Once he’d been my biggest supporter where imprints were concerned, but after our summer run-in with a branch of organized crime and a crooked attorney who’d stooped to kidnapping and illegal adoption, Jake had begun to exhibit reluctance about my reading imprints.
He no longer brought in anyone who wanted imprints read, and he didn’t encourage me to talk about helping people. I knew his guilt ran deep about having been unable to protect me, and nearly dying himself hadn’t helped matters, but I figured that was something he would have to get over on his own. I’d finally been honest with myself about what I now saw as my calling, and I couldn’t let his fear stop me, even if I knew it stemmed from love. Besides, what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
Or so I’d thought.
There had been a time when, if Jake had found me about to read something, he would have put his arms around me and drawn me close for a strengthening kiss—and a part of me still wished he’d do that. But he knew I wasn’t sure of my feelings, and that was enough for him to back away. Not completely, though. He’d made it clear how he felt about me. Now it was my turn. He was my best friend, and I loved him, but I didn’t know if I loved him enough. As much as he loved me.
“You remember Liam,” I said to cover the awkwardness.
Jake dragged his eyes from the table. “Oh, yeah. Hey, Bean Pole, how you been?”
“Okay.” Liam nodded a greeting but didn’t elaborate, anxiousness exuding from him in waves.
I’d better hurry, or he might lose it altogether. “His sister’s missing,” I told Jake. “I’m going to—” I shrugged. “You know.”
Jake’s gaze came back to me. “You should have called me. I’d like to help.”
I understood what it cost him to say that, but I wasn’t sure I wanted him to stay—though if the imprints were bad, it’d be safer for me if he did. He knew what to do.
Jake glanced out the door into the store and frowned as though remembering something.
“Did you need help in the Herb Shoppe?” I asked. He could be here only to see me, but when I’d come in, he’d had more customers than I had, so I suspected another reason.
“No.” His face became more animated, but the line of concern on his brow deepened. “There’s a woman in the Herb Shoppe. Her name is Suzy Olsen. She came in looking for your mom.”
“For Summer?” My adoptive mother had died when I was eleven, and I was surprised one of her acquaintances hadn’t heard.
“Well, she didn’t want Summer. Or not exactly. She was looking for Summer only to ask her about Kendall. She says she knew her.”
All at once there wasn’t enough air in the room. Kendall was the almost sixteen-year-old who’d died after giving birth to my sister and then to me—twins who’d been separated by the attending physician and given to two adoptive couples. I knew little more than that, and every lead we’d researched had gone dry.
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Copyright 2018 Teyla Rachel Branton
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