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«Ghosts & Echoes», Lyn Benedict

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to all the people who helped make this book a pleasure to write—long-suffering friends in Miami who helped bring me up-to-date with the city one picture at a time; writing compatriots who took the time to read more than one draft; Caitlin Blasdell, my ever-helpful agent; and Anne Sowards, at Ace, for her advice and support.

1

Taking It Easy

JUST BEFORE 2 P.M., SOUTH BEACH TRAFFIC WAS AS SLOW AS IT EVER got. The sidewalks were white-hot under the June sun, and the only people walking about were red-shouldered, red-nosed tourists going puffy in the heat. The glass storefronts gave back reflections of sunlight, and the palm fronds shivered, seeking a breeze.

Sylvie idled her battered truck, waiting for a cluster of bathing-suit-clad students to pass in front of her. Once they ambled on by, Sylvie pulled into the alley between her office and Frankie’s Bar.

She let the truck engine hum and rattle for a moment—two o’clock. She could get away with not going into work, decide it was too late to make it worthwhile, and go home. What was one more day off tacked on to a month of days?

Maybe one day too many.

There was a difference between taking time off to get her grief and rage under control and taking time off because she was scared to go back to work. Scared to test her self-control. Scared she might get someone else killed the way she’d gotten Michael Demalion killed.

The ocean hissed and seethed and slapped at the nearby piers, boats bobbing in the waves, and Sylvie wondered how the ocean could sound so welcoming on Sanibel and so threatening at home.

You’ve never dropped bodies into the Gulf of Mexico, her little dark voice whispered. Only Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic.

“Yeah, didn’t miss you,” Sylvie murmured. Home for less than an hour, and her dark-natured backbrain was mouthing off again. Her vacation was definitely over. Time to go see what havoc had been wrought while Alex had been running the store.

The glass front was smudge-free and shining, the letters reading SHADOWS INQUIRIES crisp-edged and free from salt scour. Sylvie traced the curve of one of them, thought it might have been repainted in her absence. She opened the door, blinked in the contrast of light, from sunny Florida outdoors to dim fluorescence. The scene revealed itself to her in bits: Alex puttering in the dimly lit kitchenette, the German shepherd dozing on the leather couch beneath the window, the front desk piled high with files, the yawning gap of a dark stairwell leading upward to Sylvie’s private office, and the dark scent of coffee vying with cleaning solutions.

The checkered linoleum, black and white, gleamed in a way that suggested Alex had taken ruthless advantage of Sylvie’s absence to see things set back into place. Even the green-leather couch sported a patch or two, neat joins where the werewolf-clawed furniture had been repaired. That was beyond Alex. Alex had raided petty cash and called for the cleaners.

And why not? Clean start, a clear heart. Ease back into things. No hurries, no worries, no fuss or muss. Even her little dark voice, that primitive and baser side of her, usually so quick to demand action, only murmured lazy agreement. After a month of inaction, it was in a near stupor, smothered by sun and sand and enough tropical cocktails to keep a frat party happy.

Alexandra Figueroa-Smith, her business partner, looked up as Sylvie entered. Her expression, serious and a little bored, lightened, and she squealed, “You’re back!” She launched herself in Sylvie’s direction, all long limbs and bright makeup; the computer monitor rocked on the desk as she passed. “And you’re not even burned. I hate you—how the hell?—the way you were lying out, you should be toast. A carcinogen briquette.”

“Charming image,” Sylvie said. She evaded the hug, hit the kitchenette, and turned off the snazzy, easy-serve espresso maker a grateful client had given them. She swept the litter of punctured containers into the trash, and the unused pile—scarily smaller—into a cupboard, closed it firmly. “You’re cut off.” Guerro, lounging on the couch, thumped his plumy tail once in what Sylvie swore was gratitude.

“I’ve been doing the job of two people for the past two weeks. That means I get to drink coffee for two. ’Sides, it’s the good stuff.”

“Yeah?” Sylvie said. Alex reached into the cupboard, pulled out one of the little pods, and waved it at her. Sylvie sighed. Alex looked more like a grunge barista than an investigator, with her pierced brow, pink Hello Kitty baby tee, and camo cargos falling too long over yellow flip-flops. Sylvie kept meaning to have talks about business dress, but she liked Alex’s irreverent outfits. Besides, they were of a size enough that if important meetings came up, Alex could borrow Sylvie’s spare clothes kept upstairs. The coffee pod bounced under Sylvie’s nose, and she sighed again.

“Fine, give it,” Sylvie said. She switched the machine back on, but wandered away, and fiddled with the blinds above the battered, green-leather sofa. “Off, Guerro.”


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