Here is a sneak peek of my upcoming Imprints mystery series featuring Autumn Rain. This chapter is as yet unedited and will likely undergo a few changes, but I’ll update when the final is ready. Hope you enjoy!
With gloved fingers, I put the final Little People wood character in the merry-go-round next to the schoolhouse and stood back to admire my handiwork before locking the case. I bought the black tea gloves off eBay by the dozens these days, a buck a piece. Their function was twofold—they kept body oils off my antiques, and they protected me from emotions imprinted on their surfaces.
After temporarily losing my psychometry ability in May, a little over a month ago, I was careful to avoid as many casual imprints as I could. I still checked everything I put in my store to make sure any imprints they contained were positive or at least neutral, but after that, I limited contact, even the good ones that made me feel revitalized, because I was still healing and reading any imprint was effort.
Not that I’d been called on to read much of anything this past month since taking down the mobster Frank O’Donald. Truthfully, those events still had me looking over my shoulder, even though he was dead and all of his top people were in jail. That meant I wasn’t too upset that most people who came into my antiques shop these days looking for help with imprints only wanted me to tell them if their husband was cheating or if their boss was thinking of giving them a promotion.
Friday afternoons at Autumn’s Antiques were always slow. Only two customers, a blond-haired woman and a young boy, were in my store browsing near the shelves holding the music boxes. As I moved away from the Fisher Price case, the woman left her son and approached me.
“May I help you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, leaning toward me confidentially. “I am here with my little boy. He insisted on coming. It’s my birthday soon, and I think he wants to buy me something special. I’ve tried to show him a few things, but . . .” She glanced at the child, who had moved from the music boxes and now had his nose pressed up against a case containing antique metal cars. “He won’t want me around, but if you could please steer him to something that isn’t expensive? He’s been working so hard the past few months doing odd jobs for my dad. We live with my parents, you see.” A frown marred the perfect heart-shaped face, and the bleakness of her tone made me wonder if there wasn’t trouble at home. “Anyway, he’s a generous kid, but I’d like him to have something for himself.”
“I’ll be glad to help,” I said. “Is there a certain limit you had in mind?”
Red stained the woman’s pale cheeks. “To tell the truth, I don’t really know how much he has. But maybe around ten or twenty dollars?” She gave a self-deprecating chuckle. “Not much in here for that, I know. But there’s a little pewter jewelry box that I like. My wedding ring would fit in it nicely.”
“I’ll do my best.” I knew the piece immediately. It had belonged to an old woman before her death, given to her by a long-dead beau. The tender imprinted memories from both of them, though fading, had made me tear up the first time I’d held it. “Are you going to wait outside? Or in another part of the store?”
She smiled. “I think I’ll go next door to that herb shop. Since they have the adjoining door, I can peek in on him. And they have some black licorice Kylan really loves.” For the first time, her gaze went to my bare feet and then away again as quickly. If she thought it strange that a full-grown woman chose to go around barefoot, she was polite enough not to comment.
“I love that licorice too,” I said, giving her a smile. “Go ahead. I’ll help Kylan.”
“Thank you. I’m sure right now he’s nowhere near what he intends to buy.” She glanced around at the boy, who was staring hard at her. “See? He’s waiting for me to leave.”
“Then you’d better go,” I said with a laugh.
With another glance at my feet, she disappeared through the double doors connecting my store with the Herb Shoppe that had once belonged to my father, Winter Rain, but now belonged to my best friend Jake. Or my formerly-best-friend-turned-boyfriend-then-turned-friend-again Jake. We were finding our way back to our friendship since my engagement to a local police homicide detective and Jake’s meeting of a new woman, but it was sometimes awkward. I missed the old days of being regular best friends.
Since my store was dead, our shared full-time employee, Thera Brinker, was selling herbs in Jake’s shop, and our part-time helper, Jazzy Storm, aka Jessica Sandstrom, who I’d recently put over my online sales, was off today. That left just me and Kylan.
The minute his mother vanished, the boy rushed over. He was a pretty child, with his mother’s blond hair and an appealing round face. His expression was somber, though, and he didn’t smile as he approached. He wore a T-shirt, faded jeans, and worn tennis shoes. A black backpack with worn trim slung over one shoulder.
“I need your help,” he said, his gaze flicking past me to the Little People display with unveiled disinterest. Not even the nineteen seventy-four castle with the turquoise flag caught his attention, and it was everyone’s favorite.
“Would you like to see something?” I asked the boy, reaching in my pocket for the keys. “You were looking at the cars, right?” Recently, I’d taken to locking small items in cases, an action my hippy adoptive parents would have decried.
“I don’t want to buy anything,” he said, which surprised me.
“Oh, okay. Well how can I help you then?”
He glanced toward the doors leading into the Herb Shoppe and then around my store. When he was sure no one was watching, the boy shrugged off his backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out a decidedly wrinkled white sheet of paper.
“It’s about this,” he said, shoving it at me. “I need your help.”
I knew the article the moment I saw it—the one that talked about me solving a murder at a local theatrical company. While I’d been careful to keep my connection to the mobster incident from the paper, this was out there for all to see. But this boy couldn’t be more than nine or ten. What was he doing reading online newspapers? Kids were supposed to be addicted to games these days.
“You need me to read something for you?” I guessed.
He nodded solemnly. “Is it free like it says?”
I started to remove my gloves. “Yes.” I did encourage people to buy something they loved from my store after using my special services, but he didn’t need to know that. “Come on over to the counter.”
He followed me over to the counter where I slipped behind it and sat on my tall stool. Sitting when reading imprints was always the best idea, just in case, though what he had couldn’t be all that serious.
“How come your eyes are different colors?” he asked.
My right eye was indeed hazel while my left was blue, and I gave him credit for noticing. “It’s something I was born with. It’s called heterochromia.” It was a condition I shared with my biological father and my twin.
Setting his backpack on the floor, Kylan bent over, nearly disappearing from my sight. Seconds later, he brought out an old chest about eight inches long, holding it carefully with both hands.
He hefted it onto the counter. “This is my treasure chest. I put all my money in here. I was saving for something special. Like my Mom’s birthday.” His gaze again strayed briefly toward the Herb Shoppe and back to me.
“That’s great,” I said. The cherry-stained wood chest wasn’t anything special, antique-wise, but I could see why the boy liked it. The rounded top and the black hasp reminded me of pirates and hidden treasure. There was a place for a padlock, though he didn’t seem to have one.
“No, it’s not great.” He frowned and moisture glinted in his eyes. Brown eyes, I noted. Deep brown, though I was sure his mother’s had been blue. He opened the chest and turned it around so I could see into it. “Because it’s gone. All of it except the change.”
He was right. Inside the chest were a few folded pieces of paper, a dirty string, a crystal-shaped object, a small ball, and a handful of change. Not one bill of any denomination in sight.
“I had seventy-six dollars,” Kylan said. “I’ve been mowing my grandpa’s lawn and cleaning out my neighbor’s birdcage for a year and a half to get that money. Whoever took it also took my silver dollars. They weren’t real silver,” he explained hurriedly. “But sometimes my neighbor pays me that way. I like the big coins, “Can you tell me who took my money?”
He looked ready to cry now and I wanted to tell him that I could, but the truth was if whoever had taken his money hadn’t left an imprint on the chest, I wouldn’t be able to help him at all.
“I’ll certainly try,” I said.
Not even that brought a hint of a smile to the child’s cherubic face. Instead, he nodded solemnly. “Thank you.”
“Where do you normally keep the chest?” I was hoping no one had broken into his family’s home.
“I keep it under my bed. But everyone knows I have it.”
He bent back over until I could only see the top of his head. The next minute he brought a tiny notebook and a pencil, covered with little cars. He stretched his arms out over the counter and opened the notebook to a page, tapping it with his pencil. “I wrote it all down—all the suspects. But I don’t think any of them would take it.”
I bent over to read the column of words that had been printed in surprisingly good penmanship: mom, dad, aunt, cousin, grandma, grandpa.”
“My cousin is too small to get it out,” Kylan said. “She’s afraid of going under the bed.”
“What about friends?”
He shook his head. “They just spend their money on candy, and they’d want to spend mine, so I don’t tell them anything. I think it must be a robber.”
“Okay then.” I reached for the sides of the chest with my now bare hands. Already I could feel the tingling that indicated an imprint. I let my hand touch the wood exactly where I imagined someone might pull it out from under the bed. The boy’s most recent imprint came first, an imprint left on the chest earlier today. Emotion took me over as if I had experienced it, as if I had lived that moment.
Determination. I am going to find who took my money. The lady at the antiques store will help. She has to.
A second imprint followed closely on the first, one that made me feel as if my heart had been ripped from my body.
A tear fell into the papers in the chest. It was all gone! Who had taken it? Sadness, so much sadness. Frustration and betrayal. “Now I will never be able to get something nice for her,” I said. It was all gone.
Then came the imprint I had been waiting for, coming from just under two weeks earlier.
I peered into the chest. There were the bills, all neatly stacked in a rubber band, except for the last few on the top. I’d just borrow the money for a few weeks like the last time. Kylan probably wouldn’t even notice. The bills on top meant the last time he put the money inside, he hadn’t even taken the chest from under the bed. I could get it back before his mother’s birthday, and no one would ever know what I bought.
The imprint vanished as whoever was holding the chest, set it down to take the small stack of bills that must have seemed like a fortune to this little boy standing in front of my counter.
Next came a more faded emotion. Satisfaction as one chubby hand opened the rounded chest top and placed a wrinkled bill onto the top of the others. Then came the effort of scooting the chest back under the bed.
There were more similar faded imprints, but when the first imprint began to repeat, I knew I’d seen all there was.
“Good news,” I said, removing my hands. “I can’t tell you who took your money because I didn’t see them or even their hands, but I can tell you it was someone you know. They borrowed your money and plan to return it before your mother’s birthday.”
It was a mean thing to do, but adults didn’t always treat children with the same respect they afforded others.
Kylan’s eyes widened. “Really? That’s great!” A line appeared between his brow. “I mean, they shouldn’t take it without my permission, but I’m glad they’re going to put it back.” He sounded hopeful now.
I hesitated before saying, “You might consider getting a lock for your chest.” If whoever had taken his money twice before, it was likely he or she would do it again.
“That’s a good idea. But I should wait until they put it back.”
I grinned. “I think that’s best.”
Setting his notebook and pencil on the counter near my cash register, he shut the chest and stowed it in his backpack. Then he grabbed his notebook and turned in the direction of the connecting doors to the Herb Shoppe.
“It wasn’t your mother,” I called after him.
He stopped and turned around. “I knew that,” he said with the first smile I’d seen. “My mom wouldn’t because she knows how hard it is to earn money. She works two jobs, and she goes to school. That’s why I want to get her something special.”
“What are you going to get her?” After all of that, I was curious.
He glanced toward my section of jewelry boxes. “It’s over there. Do you want to see? I’m not sure how I’m going to get her to bring me back here but maybe dad will, or my grandma.”
I joined the boy from behind the counter and together we walked over to the music boxes. These were on shelves instead of in cases. Currently, I had twenty jewelry boxes, eleven of which played music. Three of those had little ballerinas. To my surprise he continued past the jewelry boxes to the handheld mirrors in the case beyond that. He pointed at an ornate silver-plated, Victorian mirror. It was a lovely piece, but at eight-five dollars, it the most expensive of all my handheld mirrors.
“I’m sure I can earn nine more dollars before my mother’s birthday,” he said. “Do you think it will still be here?”
“What if I save it for you?” I said, reaching for my keys. “If you decide to get her something else, go ahead and get it, though. I can always sell it later to someone else.”
“Oh, I want it,” he assured me. “She says it reminds her of the mirror in Beauty and the Beast.”
I laughed. “That’s what I thought when I found it.” The piece had beckoned to me at an estate sale of a woman who had passed away after a very long and apparently satisfying life. She’d looked in the mirror each day, but instead of being upset at the passing years, she’d taken joy in the memories.
I put on my gloves, opened the case, and removed the mirror. “It’s a deal,” I said. “I’ll keep it in the back for you.”
He started walking away, but then stopped and turned to say, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I didn’t actually think Kylan would be back, but if he did return any time in the next two weeks, the mirror would be waiting for him. And for that show of politeness, I’d even give him a discount. It bothered me that someone would steal his money when the child would have most likely been willing to lend the money to whoever had taken it. So why take it without permission? What had the person planning to buy? What were they trying to hide?
Well, the situation was out of my hands now. A glance at the clock told me it was almost lunchtime. My fiancé, Detective Shannon Martin, would be here soon to take me out for a late lunch. We’d been engaged only a month, so it was all new and a little nerve-racking. But as long as we could figure out a way to let each other be who we really were, I was hopeful it was going to work out. Both Shannon and Jake used to be charter members in the Autumn Needs to be More Careful Club, but at a time when I was going to quit reading imprints altogether, it had been Shannon who made me see that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t use my gift to help others—even if that put me in danger. Maybe he understood because his job as a homicide detective was also dangerous at times, but being a detective was who he was.
Jake, on the other hand, had gone from supportive to wishing I wouldn’t try to solve anything more serious than a misplaced set of keys. He would have applauded using my gift for Kylan.
I had barely made it back to my counter and locked my day’s receipts in my safe next to my new Glock 26, when the electronic bells above my outer door rang, a deeper sound than the real jingle bells Jake kept above his door in the herb shop. Shannon was coming through the single outer door, and behind him I caught a glimpse of Kylan and his mother out on the sidewalk, probably heading home.
Shannon was only a few inches taller than I was, sturdily built and compact, each movement unwasted and undeniably graceful. His hair was that color between brown and blond, streaked with lighter blond from his time in the sun at work and on the acre of land he owned on the outskirts of Portland. His hair was curling at the ends as it always did when it grew slightly longer than police bureau regulations, and the skin around his eyes was prematurely wrinkled. But those eyes aren’t like other men’s eyes—or anyone’s eyes. There something in the green-blue color and the heavy frame of light brown lashes that make them compelling. His eyes were the first thing I’d noticed about him, and they are still are the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. His face was clean-shaven today, and while I kind of preferred the rougher look of a few days beard growth, kissing him freshly shaven was a lot nicer on my skin.
“Hey,” he said. As a detective, he usually wore a suit to work, sans tie, but he must have left his jacket in the car, and probably his under-the-arm holster and gun as well. I’d worn a sleeveless summer dress so my going barefoot wouldn’t be too noticeable wherever he’d take me. He was man enough to take my eccentricities, but I didn’t feel the need to flaunt them.
“Hi.” I let him come to me as I put away a few items, removed my gloves, and retrieved my purse from under the counter. “All ready.” I’d lock the outer door, but customers knew they could come in through the Herb Shoppe and pay Jake for anything they might need here. Jake had a set of keys to my cases as well. The setup worked well for both of us, and even through the ups and downs of our relationship, both of us held that part sacrosanct.
Shannon’s arms came around me, and I turned into him, breathing in the faint aroma of aftershave and coffee. I hadn’t won him over to herbal tea yet, but I was persistent. He kissed me for a long, satisfying moment before drawing away with a little sigh.
“I’m thinking pasta,” he said, releasing me.
“You’re always thinking pasta.”
He leaned over and nibbled my ear. “Not always.”
I laughed. “We can have pasta, but they’d better have something on the organic side.” I leaned over to dig through one of the organizers I kept on one of the shelves under the counter for something to write with. “Let me just write a note to Jazzy and Thera. I need to see if they can work more hours next week. Tawnia’s parents are coming from Kansas to visit, and she’s a nervous wreck.”
Shannon groaned. “Does this mean I’ll have to endure dinners and endless polite conversation?”
“Only if you still want to be my fiancé.” I said with a laugh. “Tawnia’s my sister, and that means her adoptive parents are going to be in the picture for most of our lives, even at a distance.” I’d met the couple once before at their own home soon after learning I had a sister, and it had been okay. I wasn’t sure why Tawnia was so nervous.
Now where did my pen go? It was time to order new ones apparently.
“Here,” Shannon said, holding up a pencil with a grin. “Will this do?”
The pencil was covered with little cars. “Oh,” I said. “He left it.”
“A little boy. He wanted to see if I could find out who took his money. He was using the pencil to write down suspects.”
Shannon laughed. “Smart little kid.”
“Yeah. I’ll keep it for him in case he comes back.”
Before I could reach for the pencil, my electronic bells jangled again. Shannon and I both looked toward the outer door as a muscled man pushed into the shop. The first thing I noticed about him were the myriad of colorful tattoos covering the exposed part of his chest, neck, and huge arms, which were set off perfectly by his sleeveless black biker vest. The second thing that popped out at me was that everything about him except the vibrant tattoos looked sad and dragging. His greasy, brown hair was cut short, but his mustache drooped over his mouth and his gray-streaked beard nearly touched his chest. His eyebrows were so long that they looked like caterpillars over his sad, stricken eyes. Ignoring my antiques, he strode to the counter, a paper in his hands.
“Hello,” I said. “Can I help you?”
He set the paper on my desk, and I saw it was the same Internet article little Kylan had shown me. “Are you Autumn Rain, the psychic lady?”
I stifled a sigh. I didn’t like being called a psychic because I didn’t see the future or things that were happening at the moment. I could only read emotions that other people left on certain objects. But people persisted in using the psychic moniker no matter what I said, so I bit back a protest.
“I’m Autumn Rain. How can I help?”
“My wife’s gone missing,” he said urgently. “I’ve looked for her all night and all morning. Everywhere I can think of. She’s nowhere, and it ain’t like her.” He patted a black leather bag strapped to his upper thigh over his jeans. “I’ve brought some of her things. Will you take a look?” A world of despair radiated in his tone, as if any moment this big, tough man might break down into tears.
“Sure.” I sent an apologetic glance at Shannon. Maybe this would teach him not to be late for our lunch dates. Still, if I could help this distraught man, I was glad Shannon hadn’t been on time.
The sound of laughter came from Jake’s store as if in counterpoint to the biker’s seriousness.
“Have you gone to the police?” Shannon asked.
The biker’s gaze flicked over Shannon, taking in his dress pants and shirt. Could he tell he was a cop? “I went this morning. They took my report, and I gave them a list of friends and relatives. But they haven’t called me back or come out to the house yet. They told me she’d probably be back and to call all her friends.”
“How long has she been gone?” I put my heel on the metal support ring of my stool and lifted myself onto it.
“Only since last night,” he said. “But we’re supposed to go on a trip tomorrow for our seventh anniversary. Today is the day we need to finalize what route we’re going to take. We’re heading to California. That’s where we met. It’s just not like her to disappear.”
Shannon started to speak, but I gave him a hard stare. This was my case, not his. “When was the last time you saw her?” I asked.
The biker’s expression wilted. “I was late getting off work and stopped to have a beer with the guys. When I came home, she wasn’t there. I wasn’t even more than an hour and a half late, maybe two tops.”
“Did she want you to go?”
He shrugged. “She don’t mind if I go out and have a beer. Long as I don’t come home drunk.”
Silence fell over both of us as I considered what to ask next. I was aware of Shannon watching and waiting, not impatiently but intently. Before working homicide, he’d been in missing persons, and we’d discussed his past cases enough that I knew he was thinking the same thing I was—that the woman might have more against the biker’s friends than he knew. Maybe she’d been angry and had gone somewhere to cool off. I could help with that, and it shouldn’t take long if he’d brought the right objects.
“Is anything missing?” I asked. “Clothes, suitcases, purse, car?”
“No. That’s just it. Nothing is gone except her bike—her Harley—though how that’s gone when I have both sets of keys, mine and hers, I don’t know. She just disappeared.”
“No money missing from your accounts?” I asked next, knowing Shannon was burning to ask that question. He believed that money was the root of most marital problems, and maybe he was right.
“No. Uh, I don’t know.” The biker’s brow creased. “I can check. We set up our phones for electronic banking.” He pulled out a phone and began to punch numbers. “Nope, it all looks the same as when I checked to make sure my check was put in.”
“There been any charges since yesterday?”
He looked again. “Just gas for my bike.”
“Okay, let me see what you brought.” I patted the countertop.
“Oh, right.” He unzipped the bag on his leg and withdrew a cell phone, a set of keys, a deck of face cards, and a tube of some kind of lip cream. “Sophia never goes anywhere without this stuff.”
“She didn’t take her phone?” That seemed unusual to say the least, and for the first time a twinge of apprehension filled me. Even I always took my phone with me, despite my adoptive father’s insistence that the emissions caused cancer. But I pushed back that thought before it could overwhelm me. Winter was gone now, and his death had nothing to do with any kind of emissions.
“No,” the biker said. “And she loves playing one game or another on it when we stop while we’re on the road, so that makes me more worried. If she went to a friend’s house—and none of them admit that she has—she wouldn’t have left her phone or her lip stuff.” He gave me a completely serious look and added, “She kind of has dry lips, especially on the road, so she don’t want to get a cold sore.”
That was the moment I knew I had a case. Not because of the phone, the keys or the mysteriously missing motorbike. But because of the lip cream. In an abusive situation, a woman leaving voluntarily might leave behind her clothes, her phone, and her vehicle, but if she was prone to cold sores, she’d slip that tiny tube of lip cream into her pocket.
Wherever this man’s wife was, I didn’t believe she’d left willingly.
Copyright 2019 Teyla Rachel Branton
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