Trail of Dead (Scarlett Bernard #2)(17)

by Melissa F. Olson

The place was pretty packed, but I spotted Kirsten’s angelic blonde bun in a booth near the back window.

“Listen,” I said to Jesse, “she’s nervous about meeting you. She thinks you’re going to try to bust her for…I don’t know, being a witch.”

He gave me a skeptical look. “Come on. This isn’t the Dark Ages. Half this town goes to Kabbalah meetings.”

“Whatever. Magical talent is hereditary in humans, and Kirsten’s from a long line. There’s history that you…that most people don’t know about.” I was skirting dangerously close to an outright lie here because there was a part of Old World history that I had personally chosen to keep from Jesse. There are things that are dangerous to know. “I’m not going to get into it, but believe me, it’s a sore spot for her. So try not to act like too much of a cop, okay?”

Jesse rolled his eyes, but nodded at me. I turned and threaded us through the tables. “Hey, Kirsten. Sorry we’re late.” She looked up. Her eyes were clearer than they were last night, but she still looked tired.

“Hello, Scarlett.”

“Kirsten, this is Detective Jesse Cruz. Jesse, this is Kirsten.” They shook hands. Kirsten’s face remained cool, but she looked at me and widened her eyes just a little, the international girl code for whoa. Sometimes I forget how gorgeous Jesse is. I sent her back a look that said I know, right?

“It’s very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Jesse said. I glared at him. “Can I call you Kirsten?” he added.

She gave him a wary nod. She was too well-bred to be openly hostile, but I could feel tension coming off her as she looked at Jesse.

A waitress wearing one of those headbands with reindeer antlers hustled up to get our drink orders. I asked for two orders of onion rings, today’s food specialty. When she went to get them, both Kirsten and Jesse looked a little amused. “What?” I said. “I haven’t eaten since lunch in New York. Yesterday. And it’s entirely possible that I’ll share.”

It took just a moment for Reindeer Headband to return with our drinks and my rings—this is one of the benefits of having only one menu item. While she walked out of earshot, I inhaled my first onion ring, “forgetting” to offer any to Jesse and Kirsten. When it was obvious they were both waiting for me to begin the conversation, I swallowed and said, “Okay. Kirsten, did you hear about a car accident last night? With a Jeep?”

She looked from my face to Jesse’s and back. “No. Why?”

Jesse spoke up. “Last night, Olivia killed a couple named Liam and Sara Reed. They were in a stolen Jeep.” Kirsten looked at me, reaching over to squeeze my hand. She’d remembered my parents’ names? Surprised, I squeezed back. “Some of the same physical evidence that was found at Erin’s apartment was found at the accident scene.” He told her about our suspicion that Olivia wanted to hide her plans by killing the witches. “Did either Erin or Denise know Olivia?”

Kirsten was already shaking her head. “No. Not at all. Neither of them ever needed to call in a cleanup.” To me, she said, “They both dealt in the future. They didn’t do spells or charms, nothing that would leave evidence.”

“Could they have called Olivia without you knowing about it?” Jesse asked.

“That does sometimes happen, but no. Those two just weren’t capable of that kind of magic.” Her voice was firm.

“What do you mean, not capable?”

She sighed. “Witches aren’t turned into witches, like the vampires and werewolves. We’re just ordinary people who happen to be born with the ability to manipulate magic. And we have varying strength.” She thought for a moment. “It’s sort of like being able to sing. There’s a whole spectrum of talent, from not being able to carry a tune to being the world’s greatest opera singer. But at the same time, there’s a question of versatility.”

“Like, some opera singers probably wouldn’t be able to rap,” I contributed, and Jesse flashed me a grin that made my heart ache. Goddammit. Had I really expected him to just wait around for me to be ready to date him? What an idiot, Scarlett.

“Exactly,” Kirsten said, but she kept her eyes on me. “Both Erin and Denise were like…girls who go to karaoke bars but only perform country music.”

“Limited,” he said, trying to catch Kirsten’s eye.

I was beginning to feel like the go-between in a middle school fight. Scarlett, tell Jesse I’m not speaking to him. It wasn’t like Kirsten to be this openly hostile, but at least she was talking to one of us. “But…I don’t mean to be insensitive, Kirsten, but wouldn’t they, you know—”

“See their own deaths?” Kirsten supplied. She gave me a wan smile. “Even if they looked at their own futures—and every witch I’ve ever known avoids it—future magic is almost impossible to plan or control, and mostly it works on smaller things that can still be changed. Death is…not small.”

“Okay, so they didn’t need Olivia for cleanups,” Jesse concluded. “But isn’t there another way they could have met?”

I thought it over. “The Vampire Trials?” I suggested. Every three years—three being a powerful number for the supernatural—Dashiell holds sort of an open court for the supernatural. Any vampire, witch, or werewolf in the city with a serious gripe can bring it to Dashiell for a ruling. A null—first Olivia, now me—sits with the “defendant” to make sure they can’t harm anyone during the proceedings. It’s almost exclusively vampire business, though: if a witch or a wolf brings a matter before the court, it’s because their leader is too conflicted or too involved to solve the matter in-house. Will and Kirsten deal with almost all of the disputes for their people. Either way, Kirsten would know.

Kirsten was glaring at me, and I realized I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the trials in front of Jesse. He was making a point of ignoring the question, but his eyes were jumping around with repressed curiosity. “No,” Kirsten said firmly. She broke the glare to look at both of us. “These were not powerful witches. They didn’t have enemies, and they didn’t know Olivia.”

“Okay, so what does that mean?” Jesse asked.

Kirsten and I shared a look, but I answered him. “I’m guessing it means that Olivia’s partner was the one who knew both of the witches. She’s helping Olivia kill them, or maybe Olivia is helping her.”