Dead Man Walking
Visions & Victims: Book Two
Chapter 1 Preview
“Welcome Back, Class of 2000!” a banner hanging behind the front desk of the Kindred Spirits Inn screamed at me as I descended the spiral staircase into the lobby of the paranormal bed-and-breakfast I called home.
I barely recognized the foyer. Overnight, someone had transformed the decor from a mixture of gothic architecture and art déco style into what looked more like the site of a high school prom, complete with sparkling gold and silver streamers dangling from the ceiling.
“Ah, Selena, you’re awake! Good, I need your help,” Aunt Blair called from the opposite side of the foyer, startling me. The fire burning in the massive iron brazier at the center of the room cast eerie shadows over her face as she beckoned me to hurry to her. Despite it being just after nine in the morning on a Friday, she’d already dressed to the nines in a stunning set of black velvet robes and bursting with energy, which didn’t seem like a good sign to me.
“What’s this all about?” I asked as I released the iron staircase’s handle and rounded the brazier to come to Blair’s side.
Blair furrowed her brows at me. “You didn’t get the memo?”
“Uh, no? What memo?”
Blair shook her head, nearly knocking the matching black scarf wrapped around it to the floor. “You need to be better about checking your work p-mail, love.”
“Sorry, I’m just not used it this thing yet,” I said as I pulled the enchanted cell phone she’d recently given me from the pocket of my pajamas to stare down at it as if it’d fallen to Earth from space. Though it looked just like the phone I’d brought with me from Denver several weeks prior, I’d already learned the hard way that I couldn’t take anything at face value while living high in the magical mountains of Starfall Valley.
“I understand, but you’re officially part of our staff now, so it’s important that you stay on top of things. Anyhow, to get you up to speed, and as you’ve probably already noticed, we’re throwing a bit of a party,” Blair said and swished her hand through the air in a dramatized gesture at the banner behind the front desk.
“What kind of party?”
“A class reunion! The Starcrest Institute’s celebrating the twenty-year anniversary of the class of 2000, and though they’d normally host it at the school, they’re closed right now for repairs — much of the ceiling collapsed from snow build up a few nights ago — so we’re co-hosting the event with the Starcrest Ski Resort,” Blair explained.
“That seems kind of short notice, don’t you think?”
Blair shrugged. “Yes, but it’s better than canceling the event outright.”
“Fair enough. So, what does this party entail?” I asked, though I worried I already knew the answer: a lot more guests, which meant a lot more work for us.
Since moving to Starfall Valley to help Aunt Blair and her wife, Aunt Kiki, run and staff Kindred Spirits, business had been steady but nothing we couldn’t handle. We’d never had more than a few guests at a time, and though we’d run into a bit of a speed bump with some of the inn’s other staff members disappearing, thanks to my ability to see visions of the past, we’d solved the mystery — and, amazingly, none of it seemed to have hurt our reputation in town. In fact, it’d done the opposite. Suddenly, everyone wanted to stay with us.
“Well, that’s where your help comes in,” Blair said with twinkling eyes and a devious smile on her face. “The attendees — and there are several — will arrive later this evening. Some of them are staying with us, so we need to make sure we have rooms clean and ready for them when they get here.”
“That sounds doable. I’m sure Feal has already been sneaking into most of the vacant rooms, anyway,” I said, referring to the tiny, pointy-hat wearing brownie who lived under the stairs in the inn and obsessively cleaned pretty much anything she could get her hands on. “Jadis and I can take care of the ones Feal hasn’t.”
“Good. Speaking of, where is Jadis?” Blair asked, looking around me to see if my purple-haired best friend and co-worker had followed me downstairs.
“She’s in the shower. I’m sure she’ll be down soon enough.”
“I hope so. I’m going to need all the hands I can get to help me redecorate the reception room,” Blair said, which caught my attention. I wasn’t even aware Kindred Spirits had a reception room, though, to be fair, I’d only been living there for a few weeks and, until then, hadn’t had a reason to use a room like that.
“We have a reception room?”
Blair shot me a look like she thought I might’ve fallen and bumped my head. “Of course, we do. Residents of Starfall often rent it out for conferences. Anyway, Lorne White, a public relations rep for the Starcrest Institute, will be here soon to help oversee the preparations, and I’d really like to have the room decorated before he arrives so he can practice his welcoming speech.”
“His welcoming speech?”
Blair chuckled. “Yes, the Institute is going all out for this reunion. They’ve rented out all of Kindred Spirits and the Starcrest Ski Resort for the weekend exclusively for their alumni, and the festivities officially start tonight when Mister White welcomes everyone with his speech. Mister White is also a well-known and respected critic in town, so we really need to make a good impression, especially now that our popularity has ticked up.”
I gulped. “How many people are we talking about, exactly?”
“The Institute asked us to prepare a block of thirty rooms, but they aren’t expecting all of them to fill,” Blair said, and my heart dropped into my stomach. Though Kindred Spirits could comfortably host many more people than that, especially thanks to its ability to expand and contract magically as needed, we’d never had more than five at once, so I didn’t know what to expect if thirty or more people descended on the inn. “Based on the responses to RSVPs so far, I think we’re more likely to see between five and ten guests.”
“That’s better, but still, yikes,” I groaned.
“I told you business would pick up fast around here,” Blair said with a wink. “So, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Anything else I need to know about?”
“Kiki and I will float around the room tonight serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I’d appreciate it if you and Jadis helped.”
“You got it,” Jadis called from the stairs while she descended as if Blair had summoned her. Her hair was still wet, making it look a deeper purple than the lavender it really was. “I love what you’ve done with the place, Blair. Looks great,” she said when she reached the foyer.
Blair beamed. “Good morning, Jadis, and thank you. I did it all myself. Now, let’s get started on the reception room,” she said and, without waiting for us to agree, swished away in a flurry of black, flowing robes across the foyer past the door to the basement and down the hallway that ran the eastern length of the inn. Her heeled boots clicked against the stone floor as we followed.
“We have a reception room?” Jadis whispered in my ear as we struggled to keep up with Blair.
I laughed and nodded. “I asked the same thing, and apparently so.”
“Huh, cool. What’s this all about, anyway?”
I shot her a look. “So, I take it that means you didn’t get the memo either?”
Jadis raised an eyebrow at me as she reached into her back pocket for her new company phone. She tapped her passcode in, then scrolled through her list of notifications and shrugged. “I guess not.”
“Glad I’m not the only one. Anyway, we’re hosting a class reunion for the Starcrest Institute.”
“Oh, that sounds like fun.”
“Yeah, and a lot of work,” I said as we rounded a corner and stood in front of a towering set of wooden double-doors.
“Here we are,” Blair said and shoved the doors open to reveal a sweeping, cavernous room with ceilings so high that shadows swallowed them. Identical sets of eight stone pillars lined each side of the room, pulling my eyes toward a small stage at the far end. It looked more like a gothic dining hall than a reception room, but with the right lighting and decorations, it could work.
“This is stunning,” Jadis whispered as she wandered into the room toward the first pillar on the left. She reached out and dragged her fingertips against its coarse exterior. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear this inn used to be a castle.”
Blair chuckled. “Actually, it was, of sorts. Hundreds of years ago, long before Starfall Valley became a hub for the paranormal, a very wealthy vampire fled here with a small coven of other vampires. They built the castle themselves and designed it to be a haven away from the humans who were hunting them. They called it La Forteresse du Gel, The Fortress of Frost.”
“Fitting, but Kindred Spirits is a much better name,” Jadis said, and I laughed.
Smiling, Blair nodded. “I agree.”
“How did you and Kiki end up buying this place?” I asked. “You’ve never told us.”
“It’s a long story, but the short version is that about twenty years ago, the previous owner, who also owned Starcrest Ski Resort, ran into some financial trouble and sold off the inn for an unbelievably low price. Kiki and I saw an opportunity, so we took it. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“Sounds like you made a smart choice,” Jadis said.
Blair nodded. “Our investment has definitely paid for itself several times over. Anyway, we’ve got lots of work to do, so let’s get busy,” she said and reached into the folds of her robe for her wand to point it up at the ceiling. “Illumino,” she commanded, and all at once sixteen braziers hanging from the tops of each pillar flared to life, spilling light across the room and revealing a breathtaking, living scene on the ceiling. Snow twirled and drifted above as if someone or something had come and lifted the roof off the room.
Blair followed my disbelieving eyes upward. “Ah, yes, the ceiling is magical. It can show whatever scene you’d like. How about this?” she asked and waved her wand in a slow arch above her head. The ceiling swirled into a rippling, incomprehensible mess of colors as if Blair had dragged her wand across the surface of a lake, only to stabilize a few moments later into a galactic scene. Stars twinkled in the inky black sky, interspersed with burning planets.
“Amazing,” I whispered.
Blair shrugged. “It’s a fun party trick.”
Unfortunately, when my eyes finally came back down to ground level, I found the light from the braziers had revealed another surprise: the room was filthy. Dust bunnies bounced across the floor like tumbleweeds, and cobwebs dangled from every unattended corner — and though I wasn’t sure, I could’ve sworn I saw the beady, yellow eyes of a rat shining from the darkness for a moment before they vanished.
As if she’d been expecting my appraisal, Blair laughed and threw her hands in the air. “As you can see, it’s been a while since we’ve had a reason to use this room.”
“It’ll take us days to clean this up,” I groaned. “How on Earth are we supposed to get it tidied and decorated today?”
With her free hand, Blair reached back into her robes — and pulled out two more matching wands. “With magic, of course,” she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She handed them out to us, but all I could do was stare down at the knotted, foot-long strips of wood in her hand.
“You’re giving us these?” Jadis asked as she reached for a wand.
“How else are you supposed to learn to use magic?” Blair asked, but I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d used Blair’s wand once to light my way when we went down into the pitch-black basement, but I’d figured that only worked because she’d cast the spell before she passed it to me, not because I had any magical aptitude myself.
Though I did occasionally have visions, it’d never occurred to me I’d one day get my own wand or what I’d do with one. Until just a few weeks ago, I hadn’t even known magic was real, despite living with Jadis, a self-proclaimed witch. Then again, for Jadis, being a witch looked more like waving crystals around and burning sage just for the sake of it.
“But we don’t have a clue what we’re doing,” Jadis objected, “and besides, I can’t even use magic.”
Blair raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure about that? I’ve felt it radiating off you when you do your tarot readings.”
Jadis blushed. “You know about that?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Jadis. Many witches discover their abilities that way. Now, are you going to take a wand, or are you going to make me force it on you?” Blair asked, taunting us with a shake of her hand.
Beaming, Jadis snatched a strip of wood from her, and immediately the surrounding air shifted and took on a charge as if a storm were brewing inside the room. Jadis laughed and stared down at the wand in her hand in disbelief. “It feels weird to hold, almost like I stuck my finger in a power outlet or something.”
“Then you’ve chosen well. Selena?” Blair asked, offering me the remaining wand. Though I knew I had no reason to worry, taking the wand scared me. What if it didn’t like me, or what if I accidentally lit someone on fire? “It won’t bite, love, I promise,” Blair encouraged me, so I took a deep breath and yanked the wand from her hand before I could second guess myself. Again, electric energy coursed through the room, and a current surged up my arm. It spread throughout my entire body, to my toes, where it bounced back and disappeared.
“Wow, that was intense,” I whispered as my eyes fluttered open — I hadn’t realized I’d closed them.
Blair stood smiling from ear-to-ear. “Normally, you’d have to take the requisite classes and pass a few exams at Starcrest Institute to get your hands on a wand, but let’s just say I have some connections at the wand shop,” she said and winked at us. “These are training wands, so they can’t cast advanced or offensive spells, but they should be fine for clearing out cobwebs and hanging some decorations. Just don’t tell Kiki you got them from me. Deal?”
“Deal,” Jadis and I said together.
“Good. First, a quick lesson on the proper way to hold your wand and cast,” Blair said, and held hers out to demonstrate. “You’ll want to maintain a grip that’s tight enough not to drop it, but not so tight that you lose range of motion in your wrist.”
We copied her grip, and after she evaluated us for a moment, she nodded approvingly. “Perfect, both of you. You’re catching on quick. Now, let’s start with a basic cleaning spell. Follow my lead,” she said, and aimed her wand at one of the roving dust bunnies, so Jadis and I found one of our own.
“Good, now repeat after me: Mundus,” she said, and we repeated the word. The tips of our wands illuminated, but nothing happened. “As you saw, without the correct movement, the spell won’t work. For this spell, flick your wrist while you cast, as if you were flicking away a speck of dirt from your clothes. Watch,” she said, and re-aimed at her dust bunny. “Mundus,” she commanded, swishing her wrist in the way she’d instructed, and with a small popping sound, the dust bunny vanished. “Now, you try.”
Smiling at each other, Jadis and I lined up in front of our dusty enemies. “On the count of three?” I asked, and Jadis nodded, so I counted down, and right at the exact time, we both shouted, “Mundus!” and just like with Blair’s dust bunny, ours vanished with a pop.
Ecstatic, Jadis and I threw our arms around each other, unable to control our excited laughter. Though I’d seen it happen with my own eyes, I still couldn’t accept we’d just cast our very first spells together — but I couldn’t have picked someone better to share the experience with.
Blair clapped for us. “Excellent job, girls!”
Jadis held me out at arms’ length. “Can you believe this? We’re witches, Selena! Me and you, of all people, the most skeptical, spiritually critical person in the world.”
Jadis had a point; I’d always ridiculed her interest in the occult and never once believed that any of the stuff she did worked, and even though I’d just cast a spell myself, I still couldn’t believe magic was real, not even after all the supernatural, super weird things I’d seen and experienced since moving to Starfall Valley. “I guess I’ve got a lot of crow to eat, don’t I?” I asked, and Jadis threw back her head in laughter.
“We’ll worry about the crow for dinner,” Blair said. “For now, let’s focus on getting this place in shape. Why don’t you two clear out the cobwebs and dust, and I’ll start decorating?”
“Leave it to us. These dust bunnies won’t know what hit them,” Jadis said as she blew on her wand tip as if it were a smoking gun. “I’ll take this side. You can have the other, Selena.”
“Got it,” I said and walked to the right side of the room with my wand pointed and ready, hoping I didn’t cross paths with the rat I thought I’d seen earlier because I doubted the cleaning spell we’d learned would take care of it. As if by thinking about the rat had summoned it, a pair of yellow eyes blinked in the darkness and I froze with my wand held out in front of me.
“Go on, run away,” I hissed, waving my wand toward the eyes to shoo the beast off, but when a second pair of eyes blinked into existence beside the first and both began moving closer, my throat constricted. Before I could call for help, the two creatures burst forth from the darkness, squealing, and I covered my face with both hands, squeezed my eyes shut, and screamed while I waited for them to maul me.
But when after a few moments nothing had happened, I cautiously opened one eye and found a pair of tiny twin imps, one with wild blue hair and the other red, flapping their leathery wings furiously to stay afloat in front of me. The fear I’d felt melted away, replaced instantly by a wave of anger, and the imps burst into laughter at the look of pure rage I shot them. They gripped their stomachs and cackled in their high-pitched, squeaky voices.
“Human girl scream like banshee!” the blue-haired female screeched as she nearly fell out of the air from laughing so hard. I still had no idea how or why the imps had ended up at Kindred Spirits, but I knew I was tiring of their games.
“Lox! Keez! That’s not funny, you scared me half to death!” I screamed at the mischievous duo and swatted at them with my wand. The flying gremlins attempted to fly in opposite directions to dodge my swipe, but thanks to their knotted tails they ended up slamming into each other’s backs and falling to the ground instead, though it still didn’t stop their laughter.
Lox, the red-haired male, struggled to his little feet. “Sneak and scare! Sneak and scare! Sneak and scare!” he shouted as he hopped from one foot to the other in rhythm.
Blair sidled up beside me with a smirk on her face. When I glared at her, she shrugged. “What? I’m pretty sure the whole inn heard you screaming.”
“The little brats pretended to be rats to scare me!”
“Ratty brats! Ratty brats! Ratty brats!” Keez chanted, and Lox joined in, each of them bouncing from foot to foot.
“All right, you two, that’s enough,” Blair said. “Leave us alone. We’ve got work to do. Oh, and don’t you dare think about playing any of your little games with the guests we have arriving tonight. Understood?”
The imps froze, exchanged quizzical looks with each other, and stared up at Blair with malicious grins, their tiny, razor-sharp teeth flashing. “No games. Imps promise,” Keez said, though I knew better than to think Blair believed her any more than I did.
“Good. Now scram,” Blair said as she aimed her wand at the two of them. “Evanesco,” she barked, and the imps vanished in a swirl. Blair turned back to me. “Sorry about that. You know how they are.”
“Why do you even keep them around?”
“Occasionally, their mischief can be useful. You ought to know that better than anyone else by now,” Blair said, referring to the way the imps had previously helped me break into a hidden room in the inn that none of us knew existed.
“Fair enough. But how did they end up living here in the first place?”
“That’s a great question. They were already here when Kiki and I bought the inn. We’ve asked them how they found the place, but in their characteristically cagey manner, they’ve never told us the truth. Anyway, let’s get back to work. We don’t have a lot of time left before Mister White gets here.”
“Fine,” I sighed, and with an encouraging smile, Blair left me to my own devices again. As annoyed as I was with Lox and Keez for scaring me, I quickly forgot about it when I zapped away my first cobweb.
I couldn’t help beaming. A few weeks ago, if someone had told me that in just a short amount of time Jadis and I would live with a pair of aunts I didn’t know I had in a supernatural bed-and-breakfast in the mountains and learning how to use magic as bonafide witches, I would’ve assumed they were off their rocker and backed away slowly — but there she and I were performing paranormal pest control. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.
Blair conjured up a heaping pile of decorations from thin air and began waving her wand wildly around her head, sending streamers, banners, and lights soaring through the air toward the ceiling where they hung themselves on and between the pillars. We’d only just started getting the room ready for the Starcrest Institute’s big weekend blowout, but I couldn’t wait to see what it would look like when we finished.
I knew nothing about Lorne White, Starfall Valley’s allegedly famous critic, nor anyone else coming to the reunion, but busting my hump to make the event a success seemed like the least I could do to thank Aunt Blair for the magic she continued to bring into my life. She hadn’t said so, but the reunion seemed like it could be a real make or break moment for Kindred Spirits’ future.
So, we’d just have to pull out all the stops to knock Lorne and the other guests dead.