Debriefing the Dead by Kerry Blaisdell

Debriefing the Dead (The Dead Series Book 1) by Kerry Blaisdell

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Debriefing the Dead (The Dead Series Book 1) by Kerry Blaisdell

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Archangel Michael offers her a deal: recapture a powerful rock the Demons stole, and she can live long enough to find Geordi a safe home.

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Chapter One

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

~The Bible, 1 Peter 5:8

 

I smelled Death on the two men who walked into my shop that day. I should have listened to my nose.

Of course, death is an everyday part of my life, which is probably why I ignored it. I’m a dealer in rare artifacts, particularly those that haven’t been acquired through, um, normal channels. Okay, I’m a fence, and before that, I robbed graves. But only those already being robbed, by “professional” archaeologists. And frankly, I know as much or more as they do about the care and preservation of ancient relics.

In any case, my shop, Hyacinth Finch’s Boutique des Antiquités, now stocks items that are either stolen, or are being stolen back, by one or another of my usual clients, members of the Marseille elite who enjoy stabbing each other in the back, art-collection-wise. They pay well, and leave me to live my life the rest of the time, so I guess you’d call it a symbiotic relationship.

But these guys weren’t from my client base. Until they arrived unannounced in my office above the shop, and sat, uninvited, in the chairs in front of my desk, I’d never seen them before. Which made their interest in this exact batch of goods even more suspect.

“Who are you again?” I asked, more to buy time than anything else.

The one on the left smiled genially. He was larger than his companion, not exactly fat, but taller and more…spread out, for lack of a better description. His dark blue eyes were rimmed with thick lashes, and his hair was oiled into a slick black shell. His tanned skin cracked and peeled in places, like he’d had one too many sunburns, and he had a heavy French accent, but as it was late August, and we were in southern France, neither was exactly remarkable. I myself spoke fluent French, but he’d begun in Franglish, and I hadn’t corrected him.

“Mademoiselle Finch.” He leaned forward, the flimsy wooden chair legs groaning and spreading under his bulk, making it look as if he had six legs instead of the usual two. “Je vous assure, nothing would please me more than to provide our bona fides. But the time, it is lacking.” He glanced at his companion, equally dark and oily, but not as talkative. Oily Two smiled, close-mouthed, and gave a Gallic shrug. We’re all pals here, right?

Yeah, right.

“Look,” I said, suppressing a shiver of unease, despite the heat, “even if I wanted to, I’m not sure I could find this particular lot.” I pretended to check a leather-covered log book I had open on my desk. “Where did you say it originated?”

“Turkey.” Oily One’s smile said he knew I knew that, his yellowed teeth big and sharp behind his dry, cracked lips.

I ran a finger down a column on the page. Look at me—organized, professional, absolutely-not-lying business woman extraordinaire. “Nope. Nothing’s come in from Turkey.”

His gaze flicked to the log, then around my office. Books filled wood-and-glass cases along the walls, and papers crowded the floor. The window stood open behind me, letting in the Mediterranean breeze and the slanted late afternoon sunlight. Also, un fourmilion—an antlion—a long, thin-bodied insect with lacy wings, that my seven-year-old nephew, Geordi, would have been fascinated by. He loves bugs. Me, not so much, but I’m a vegetarian, and a live-and-let-live kinda gal, and this guy wasn’t doing anything besides buzzing lazily around my office, looking for ants to trap. At least, that’s what Geordi says they do. I hate ants, so if there were any to chow on, more power to him.

Oily One and Two didn’t seem bothered by him, but I rather wished they were, so we could hurry this along. The bell on the downstairs door had only rung once since lunch—when these two entered—and it seemed like a good day to close early. One of the perks of being an independent “art dealer” such as myself. The downside is, I can’t afford to alienate potential clients. I have my regulars, but business ebbs and flows, and extra cash is always handy. Especially now.

I forced a smile of my own. “I want to help you—I do. But I have no idea where to find…something like this.” Technically, this was true. I’m a big believer in technicalities.

Oily One leaned in closer, waistband straining, hands on his knees, palms up. Open. Friendly. I didn’t buy it, but apparently, the antlion did. It landed on his shoulder, black body silhouetted crisply as it crawled unnoticed over the expensive white of his suit.

He smiled again. “Surely a businesswoman of your reputation…?”

“Messieurs. I’m not sure what you’ve heard”—or from whom—“but I am merely a dealer. I buy. I sell. I don’t find.”

“Vous me surprenez. It is said you are très accomplie at these things.”

I tilted back in my chair. “You flatter me. I’ve had good luck. And good clients. I can only sell what they bring in. Speaking of which—who did you say referred you?”

Touché. Point à moi. But he wasn’t giving up. “A shipment from Colossae, in southwestern Turkey—près de la rivière Lycus. A region in which you specialize, non? Perhaps you have contacts. You will make some calls. We will, of course, reward your efforts.”

He took out a business card and wrote on the back, the movement causing the antlion to take flight, hovering between him and his companion. Oily Two waved it away, then caught my eye and lifted a hand, as though asking if he should squash it. His full-lipped, sharp-toothed grin was creepier even than his friend’s, and I shook my head hastily, noting that the insect—no dummy—was already out of reach.

His friend passed the card to me, and though our fingers never touched, I suddenly felt…heat…burning off him in sharp waves. I jerked my hand away, taking the card with me. It was as cool as paper usually is, and I gave a mental shake and glanced at the number he’d written, then had to hide my shock. This would be enough for me to take a year off—or pay for Geordi and his mother, my sister Lily, to get really far away from her ex. Some place where he could never hurt them, ever again.

I flipped the card over. Les Rousseaux was printed on it in plain type, with a cell number below. When I looked up, he smiled. Again.

“Claude Rousseau.” He indicated Oily Two, who gave a slight bow. “Mon frère, Jacques. We are most pleased to make your acquaintance. If you hear of anything, you will call. Yes?”

“Yes,” I said, the interview’s end finally in sight. “Of course.”

They rose to go, their tread surprisingly silent on the stairs, given their combined bulk. I waited until I heard the bell on the front door tinkle one last time. Then I ran down and shot the bolt. I flipped the sign in the window to read Fermé, then pulled down the shade. Next, I went to the back door and locked it as well. Only when I was alone in the dark store, so familiar and comforting in its clutter, did I take a deep breath and blow it out.

The whole experience bothered me on a number of levels, not the least of which was the timing. You see, I wasn’t exactly upfront with the Rousseaux. Not only would I be able to locate the lot they wanted, I already had it—in storage, where it’d been for several months. The thing is, only two people should have known its origins.

One of them was me.

And the other was dead.

****

An hour later, I’d left the shop, wandering home via my usual circuitous route, past various markets, plein air or otherwise, where I picked up the parts of my dinner. One of the reasons I prefer Europe to the States is the whole notion of buying your food the day you cook it. I’m not exactly a health nut, but I am a vegetarian, and a sucker for anything fresh.

Walking and shopping also gives me a chance to process my day. And today, I had a lot to process. It occurred to me the Rousseaux could be cops. La Boutique has been investigated a time or two, but I always come away clean. The thing is, if they were les flics, asking after this lot, then they already knew it was stolen. But it came from Colossae, a site which has never officially been excavated, so how could anyone know part of it was gone?

I’d “inherited” the catch from my business partner, Vadim, after he died in a boating accident. A lump rose in my throat, hot and sharp, and I swallowed it back down. Though we weren’t “together” romantically, Vadim was more than a partner, he was my friend. His death was so unexpected; even half a year later, I still couldn’t believe he was gone. I’d never even opened the crates he left me, just locked them up to deal with later. But…was my reluctance now because of my grief? Or were my instincts right and something was off?

Unlocking the iron gate leading to my building’s interior stairwell, I saw my neighbor on his way down. Jason Jones is a little younger than me and a lot taller—at least a foot, and I’m five-five. He tends bar at one of the gay cabarets in Marseille, so he’s frequently on his way out when I’m coming home. In theory, he moved here to pursue a theater career, but in practice, I think he likes the bar better. Rehearsals would mess too much with his “party all night, sleep all day” schedule.

“Hyacinth!”

He broke into a grin and finished coming down the steps, then gave a low theatrical bow and pretended to kiss my hand. He wore a black dress shirt, gray slacks, Italian leather shoes, and ridiculously large sunglasses that made him look like a very large insect hovering over my wrist. He can rock a pair of jeans, too, but today he was the perfect image of the playboy bartender, a look he cultivates with great care and uses to great advantage—and he has the tips to prove it. He’s not actually gay, but he doesn’t advertise the fact. However, he’s never once tried to hit on me, which is not as insulting as you might think. I don’t have the best track record with relationships, and with Lily and everything else, I had no desire to start one now.

As soon as I had the thought, I realized he was lingering over my wrist, turning it up and inhaling deeply. The heat of his breath tickled my skin, his fingers caressed my palm, and my knees wobbled. Apparently, I’m not immune to his charms after all.

He let go and straightened, examining my face. I couldn’t read his expression behind the shiny glasses, but he must have seen something in mine that made him ask, “What’s up? Something wrong at the shop?”

“It’s nothing. Not really. Some new clients came in and wanted to chat. Actually…they might be a good fit for Vadim’s last shipment.”

He flipped the sunglasses up, blue eyes wide. He’s never asked how I acquire my goods, and I’ve never asked what happens when he disappears for days with some girl he’s met on the metro. He’s entitled to his secrets, too. But he moved in right after Lily left her creepazoid husband and just before Vadim died. I couldn’t burden Lily with my grief, and our parents died more than twenty years ago. If we have other family, I’ve never met them. I don’t trust easily, but it turns out Jason has a strong, relatively safe shoulder to cry on, for which I’m eternally grateful.

That doesn’t stop him from being opinionated about what I should do with my life. He gave a low whistle. “Are you going to sell it to them?”

“I…don’t know.” I moved up the steps, so I could look him in the eye without needing a chiropractor.

“You have to sell it. It’s what Vadim wanted—why he brought it to you, for God’s sake.”

“I know. You’re right. It’s just—do I have to sell it to these guys?”

He planted his hands on his hips, glaring. “Hyacinth. It. Is. Time. Let go.”

His face was close, his breath warm, and despite it all, I found his earnestness vaguely attractive. He filled the narrow stairwell with his long, lean body, and I resisted the urge to back up another step.

“Okay, fine. I’ll call them.” He stood, unmoving, and I sighed. “What? I said I’d do it. Is something wrong?”

His gaze dropped to my sandals, then moved slowly up my legs, lingering on my hips, and from there over my chest and the sleeveless blouse that was all I could tolerate in this heat. By the time his gaze travelled up my throat to linger again at my mouth, before finally meeting my eyes, I had goose bumps in several inappropriate places, and was hoping the dark stairwell hid my blush.

His eyes flashed dark for a moment—almost black—then he gave an odd little shake of his head and took a step back himself. He dropped the sunglasses over his eyes, and when he spoke, his tone was light and friendly as ever. “Just checking it’s really you. You never agree with me in under five minutes.”

Before I could gather my wits for a decent retort, he gave a mock salute, then buzzed the gate open and vanished up the block. I blew out a breath and finished the climb to my third-floor apartment—second, if you count European style.

Jason’s only a little younger than me—late twenties or so—but I think he gets that whole joie de vivre thing better than I do. He’s a hard worker, don’t get me wrong. But he also plays hard, and flits from one activity to the next with an easy metamorphosis I admire. I didn’t know what to make of his sudden inexplicable interest, but he had helped me feel better. And he was right. Holding onto Vadim’s last catch wouldn’t bring him back. It would only hold me back.

The apartment stairs lead to a short breezeway, open on both ends. There’s one apartment on each corner, and mine’s the first on the left. I unlocked the door and stepped in. My place is tiny, but less cluttered than the shop. In a complete reversal of the stereotypical antiques dealer, I am not a pack rat. Give me open space and tidy end tables and I’m a happy camper. Wood floors, throw rugs, small table and chairs in the dining nook. A kitchen that used to be a closet, as near as I can tell—only one person can stand in it at a time, and if the oven’s open, nobody can. One window in the main room, another in the bedroom, and finally, a bathroom that’s bigger than the kitchen, but not by much.

I have pretty basic needs, possibly due to growing up in foster care. But that’s a whole other story, and I’m well-adjusted enough to know I can’t blame all my idiosyncrasies on my parentless childhood. Some, but not all. The bottom line is I don’t need a lot of junk to be happy. I do need a certain amount of cash, though. Lily’s custody battle over Geordi wasn’t only with her ex, Nick. It was with his entire family. And I do mean Family—as in organized, with a capital F. The Sicilian Mob. Which Lily swears she didn’t know until after they were married, though how either of us were naïve enough to believe Nick was just “a” Dioguardi, and not one of the Dioguardis, is beyond me.

Worse, since Geordi’s the first son of an only son, Nick’s family weren’t about to let him go, even if Lily found the one judge in Paris brave enough to side with her. It took serious guts for her to leave, and if I had any say in it, neither she nor Geordi would ever go back.

So, if the Oily Brothers’ money could facilitate that, who was I to quibble?

****

The next day was Sunday, and not only is my shop closed, most of the other shops in my area are as well. I figured the Rousseaux could wait another day before I told them of the shipment. For one thing, it would lend credibility to my claim of needing to find it first. For another, as noted, I wasn’t exactly anxious to call them.

But first thing Monday, I dragged myself out of bed, showered, and drove to the warehouse I rent at the docks, near the Bassin d’Arenc. I use it to store unsorted catches or big items I can’t cram into the shop. Or, let’s be honest, things I don’t want out in plain sight.

Ordinarily I’d walk—it’s only twenty blocks—but I had to move Vadim’s stuff to the shop before calling the Rousseaux. Unfortunately, my car’s a Peapod prototype, and about the size of a mini-Mini Cooper. It was a gift from a grateful client, and tops out at forty-five kilometers per hour, so no autobahn for me. But it’s electric, costs around two cents a kilometer for gas, and is perfect for getting around town.

Not so perfect for hauling stuff.

I could’ve asked Claude and Jacques to meet me with a truck. Since the catch was currently in three large shipping crates, this would save tons of time and effort. But though I’d decided to unload the stuff, showing these guys where I kept my stock—or what I still had on hand—might not be the smartest idea. Besides, I was curious about the contents. Vadim had never told me what he’d found, and in our line of work, it could be anything from thousands-of-years-old “junk” to priceless relics. I was guessing at least some of the latter, or why would the Rousseaux care?

In order to find out, I’d have to move everything to smaller boxes, cart it to the store, go back to the warehouse, rinse, repeat. Part of me wondered if I should just hand it over as-is and be done.

I suppressed yet another twinge at the memory of yesterday’s interview. Especially Jacques, sitting still and spider-like across from me. I had a feeling he didn’t miss much and wondered what I might have unconsciously revealed while Claude distracted me.

I pulled into a parking space near my unit, and my cell rang, the cheery notes of Beethoven’s Für Élise telling me Lily was calling for our weekly chat. For a second, I thought about answering. Lily might be Geordi’s mother, but I have to say, he’s pretty much the light of my life. Certainly, the best male relationship I’ve had, even counting Jason and Vadim. Who wouldn’t love a guy who brings you dead bugs he’s found in someone else’s yard, then offers to split the last éclair because you’re his “favoritest tata ever”? He’s a smart kid, too. I’m his only auntie, and the flattery still works.

I sent the call to voicemail. It almost killed me, but it’d be hard enough opening the crates, knowing how excited Vadim was when he landed this catch. You can’t get much fresher than an unexcavated site. If I spent even a half hour catching up with Lily and Geordi, I’d chicken out. And I had to know what was in those crates, or I’d never be able to let them, or Vadim, go.

I screwed up my courage, got out of the car, and unlocked the unit’s roll door. Yep. Three large crates.

Very large.

I went back to the Peapod, opened the hatch, and extracted the paltry pile of produce boxes I’d scrounged from my favorite markets. I’d have to empty them again at the store for subsequent trips, or else go beg more boxes. This was ridiculous. But necessary.

Must let go. Must move on.

****

As is so often the case, once I got going, it wasn’t so bad. Opening the first crate was tough, and I won’t say I didn’t cry at all. Vadim was a good partner, and a better friend. At least he’d died doing what he loved—sailing the Mediterranean, with a drink in his hand and two beautiful women at his side. He was a devout atheist, but if there’s any kind of afterlife, I’d like to think he’s still sailing and drinking, and looking for the next big catch.

I found a roll of paper towels on a shelf and blew my nose, then metaphorically rolled up my non-existent sleeves and dug in.

The more valuable items were wrapped in acid-free paper and sealed in airtight containers, which I didn’t bother to open, because Vadim had helpfully labeled them. His clear, bold printing noted statuary and relics, both Pagan and Christian, from the ancient Phrygian city of Colossae, near what is now Denizli, in southwestern Turkey. The general period was the first century, so any Christian items were very early. While this fascinated me intellectually, and I did have some experience with artifacts from Turkey, it was mainly because Vadim brought them to me. My own interests lie more in the Egyptians, one of the reasons we’d complemented each other professionally. But it meant I had little personal experience with anything of this kind.

It took several trips to move the best items, and a few more for the midlevel stuff, plus getting more boxes. By the time I got to the third crate, the sun was well past its zenith, but I’d reached the dregs. Items down here were either unwrapped, loose in the packing straw, or else carelessly covered with rough cloth to prevent scratching.

This crate wasn’t as full as the others, and it looked like I was on my final trip. Thank God. I’d had a quick lunch—veggies, hummus, cheese, and bread—but otherwise worked straight through. Lily’d called twice more, but I didn’t pick up. I’d call her back over dinner, when we’d have time to chat, and I could tell her of my sudden windfall.

I plopped my last empty box on the warehouse floor, then hung over the side of the crate to excavate the bottom. I found a few more canvas bundles and pulled them out, setting them in the box, then went back once more.

I thought I’d gotten everything, until my fingers brushed against something hard, wrapped in cloth, and oddly warm to the touch. I grabbed it and heaved myself out of the crate, then examined the bundle. It felt like a rock, heavy and solid. Most of the items in this crate were broken pottery shards, from vases and the like. Hard, maybe, but not heavy. Careful not to touch the item’s surface, in case it was valuable after all, I turned it over and shook the covering loose.

Sure enough, it was a rock. Plain, gray, ordinary. About half the size of an American football, shaped like an irregular pyramid, with jagged edges and flat-but-rough surfaces. The only unusual thing about it was its warmth. Like Claude Rousseau. Which is maybe why, against my better judgment, I reached out and touched the very tip of the rock’s pyramid.

And then it shrieked at me, the agony of centuries piercing my ears till I thought my skull would burst, electric shocks searing through my fingers, hand, arm, ripping through my whole body, gripping my lungs and squeezing until I couldn’t breathe. I flung the rock away, covering my ears and dropping to the floor, shaking, gasping for air, while still it screamed, on and on and on and on, until I lay huddled on the concrete, red fire burning in my head, blackness filling my soul.

Then everything went silent.

Debriefing the Dead (The Dead Series Book 1) by Kerry Blaisdell
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