Police officer and Witch Donata Santori spends her days interrogating dead witnesses by summoning their spectral forms. Normally the job is little more than taking statements and filing reports. But when she’s called in on the case of a murdered art restorer, she finds herself suddenly in possession of a mystical portrait that both the human and paranormal communities would kill to get their hands on.
Unable to take on the forces hunting her alone, Donata seeks help from two unlikely and attractive allies: a reluctant shape-changer and a half-dragon art forger. But as the three of them hurry to uncover the truth about the powerful painting, Donata realizes that she’s caught in the middle of not one but two wars—one for possession of the painting’s secrets and one for possession of her heart…
Donata Santori looked down at the dead body lying at her feet and thought, Oh, well, at least I’m not in the basement.
Behind her, cops from the Central Gates Precinct picked their way carefully around the evidence of a botched robbery: scattered tools, a fallen painting, and a second body, lying across the room with blood congealing around a jagged head wound. The corpse she stood next to, the thief responsible for all the mess, wore a dingy black sweater, battered black sneakers, and a slightly surprised expression. His neck sat at an angle never achieved by the living.
Her boss, Chief O’Malley, shifted his bulk to look over her shoulder at the dead thief. “So what do you think, Santori? Can you get anything useful out of him?”
Donata shrugged. As the precinct’s Witness Retrieval Specialist, she spent most of her days in the bowels of the old stone building talking to dead people. Nicknamed “Ghost Yankers,” Witness Retrieval Specialists were Witch-cops specially trained to use their particular abilities to talk to the one witness to a murder who had always been beyond reach of the police—the victim himself. Talking to dead criminals wasn’t usually in her job description.
When Witchcraft came out of the broom closet in the early twenty-first century, there had been a period of adjustment for everyone involved. Then the Catholic Church settled most of the lawsuits for religious persecution out of court, confessing to centuries of lying to the public for the greater glory of God and his coffers. It hadn’t hurt that the latest pope’s mother turned out to be the last in a long line of Stregas, traditional Italian Witches. And then the scientific community had sheepishly conceded that it had proven years before that clairvoyance and other psychic abilities existed and could be measured. They’d kept it under wraps for obvious reasons. So now Witches were accepted as part of the landscape, just another once-oppressed minority working to find their place in society. Most Witches had respectable jobs, like dowsers (who could save a company the cost of drilling exploratory holes for water or oil wells), or healers.
And then there were the folks like Donata, who did the unpleasant jobs nobody else wanted. Her fellow cops acknowledged her usefulness but could never quite get comfortable with her, so she was relegated to the basement, where the depressing miasma that accompanied her work wouldn’t affect them.
Even the Chief mostly left her alone to do her job, summoning the ghosts of the recently murdered so they might bear witness against those who’d killed them. Not a pleasant occupation, to be sure, but one which Donata had taken on with enthusiasm and pride, pleased to be able to use her unique talents for the greater good.
Of course, that had been a long time ago, and after seven long years of dealing with misery, tragedy, and (more often) petty Human failings, she’d finally burned out enough to seriously consider quitting. Maybe find a job that wouldn’t make her family look down their collective patrician noses, nor get her rejected by both cops (who didn’t much like Witches) and Witches (who didn’t much like cops).
But that was before last week.
Last week was when the Chief came to beg her for help with a personal crisis. His beloved granddaughter had been kidnapped by a vengeful ex-con, who had then been shot dead before he could reveal where he had hidden his five-year-old victim. By the time the Chief had descended to her basement lair, he was out of other options and desperate for help, even from a source that clearly made him twitch.
Thankfully, Donata had been able to trick the dead kidnapper into giving up the location before little Lacey’s air had run out. But in the process, her boss had gotten a good look at both her dismal work environment and the scope of power she rarely showed to anyone. He hadn’t said a word at the time, but a week later, here she was at the West Gates Art Museum and out of the basement.
Donata didn’t know why, but she had a feeling she was about to find out.
“Marty ‘the Sneak’ Williams,” the Chief said in her ear, making her jump. “Petty thief. Strictly a hired hand.” He snorted. “This kind of job is usually out of his league. Looks like he surprised the vic—Clive Farmingham, the museum’s restorer. The place was supposed to be empty, other than the night guard Williams knocked out on his way in. Must have stumbled across the poor guy working on the painting, they tussled, and Farmingham got his head bashed in.” He nudged the body of the dead thief with one toe. “Stupid waste, killing a guy because he happened to work overtime, and then ending up dead himself. All for an ugly painting.”
Donata glanced at the painting lying just out of reach of the thief’s limp hand. It didn’t look like much to her, but then, she was a Witch-cop, not an art historian.
“Is it really valuable?” she asked. A look around the room showed plenty of other more appealing paintings, along with a few statues and other works of art. And, of course, this was just the restoration room—the rest of the museum contained thousands of other pieces. “Why pass up all the more accessible stuff to grab this one painting?”
“Damn good question,” the Chief responded with a scowl. It was common knowledge around the precinct that the Chief didn’t like mysteries or unanswered questions. “Doesn’t make a lot of sense, him traversing the entire length of the building, walking right past a lot more costly artwork, just to get that.” He cast a disdainful look at the drab painting.
Donata had to admit that, even with her less-than-expert eye, she wasn’t impressed either. The picture showed six very different people, all in old-fashioned garb, sitting around a fire in a meadow. The scene was dark and gloomy, although part of that might have been the patina of age—something the restorer had been working on, no doubt. A corner of the painting showed the marks of his work, where a lighter patch revealed the cleaned-up paint underneath. An uneven blob of black paint covered one of the faces and the upper half of its body. Other than that, there was nothing to distinguish this painting from any other oil.
“Was the artist famous?” Just because she didn’t like it didn’t mean the artist wasn’t well known. Heck, she didn’t much like Van Gogh, and look how expensive his work was.
The Chief shrugged his broad shoulders. Even on the verge of retirement, he barely showed signs of his years behind a desk. “Guy named Caspar David Friedrich, according to the museum’s curator.” He jerked his graying head in the direction of a stout man giving information to an officer across the room, and then looked down at his notebook. “Died in 1840. Apparently this painting came from the end of his career, when he’d been going downhill for a while. Valuable, but not excessively so.”
Donata raised her eyebrows. “So why this painting?” She looked down at the body again. “And what happened to our pal here? He get so depressed by the crappy artwork, he threw himself down the stairs?” Behind her, she heard one of the other cops snicker. Dead body aside, this was already a better day than any she’d spent at the precinct in recent years, and it was barely dawn.
The Chief’s scowl was only slightly undermined by the hint of a smile at one corner of his lips. “You’re closer than you think, Santori. Maybe we’ll turn you into a real cop yet.”
He gestured with one stubby finger toward the steps they stood next to, pointing at the circle of crime scene tape that outlined a dark spot on one riser. “Looks like some kind of oil got spilled on the stairs. Probably came from one of those bottles over there.”
He moved the finger to aim it at the workbench near where the dead restorer sprawled in uneaseful repose. “The curator says it smells like the restorative oil Farmingham liked to use—something about the distinctive odor of balsam, I think.” He glanced at his notes and shook his head again, mouth screwed up in disgust. The Chief didn’t like stupid waste of life any more than he liked mysteries.
“So, let me get this straight.” Donata tugged on the end of her long, dark brown braid. “We’ve got one dead restorer, killed in the process of a robbery because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She looked down. “And we’ve got the thief who killed him, also dead, from an accidental fall down the stairs while he was rushing to get away with his loot.”
Her boss grunted his agreement, clearly unimpressed by her brilliant summation of the situation.
Donata tried to figure out what she was missing, and failed. Great, she thought miserably, he finally lets me leave the building, and I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ll never get out of the basement again. She tried not to show her frustration, but she failed at that too.
“So what am I supposed to be doing here, Chief?” She straightened her shoulders and pulled herself up to her full five feet, nine inches. She still felt puny compared to the grizzled old cop standing next to her—but that could have been because he held her future in his hands. “There’s no guilty party for me to find—the gang’s all here.” They both looked down at the dead thief.
The Chief glanced around at the other cops and shifted her a few feet away from the body.
A shiver of interest slid down her spine. Maybe there was a reason for her presence at the museum after all. O’Malley clearly had something in mind.
“There’s a guilty party unaccounted for, all right,” he said, square chin set in a firm line. He jerked his head in the direction of the dead thief. “Old Marty over there never planned a job in his life. Hell, the guy could barely plan what he was going to have for breakfast. Somebody hired him to steal this painting, and that someone is responsible—one way or the other—for two deaths. You find out who that guy was, and why he wanted this particular painting, and I’ll give some serious consideration to using you in the field more often. Maybe even get you an office with windows and an occasional glimpse of sunlight.” His hazel eyes peered into her dark brown ones keenly. “What do you think, Santori? Up to the task?”
Donata snorted under her breath. What did she think? She thought this was a damned test, that’s what she thought. Not that she didn’t believe the Chief when he said he wanted someone to take the rap for the crimes that had gone down here. The Chief was a stickler for justice, and if she could get the dead thief to implicate the man who’d hired him, the guy could face charges for accessory to murder, contracting an unlawful act, and an assortment of other felonies that could land him behind bars for years.
And, of course, her boss wanted his unanswered question resolved, too, just so it wouldn’t nag at him later. But that wasn’t the point here—not really. Donata was pretty sure she was the point, the reason he’d pulled her away from the others. Or rather, after what she’d done for the Chief last week, he was looking at her more closely, testing her to see how well she worked in the field, while also rewarding her for what she’d done for him.
Well, she’d been waiting for a chance like this for years, and she didn’t really care what his motivation was. She finally had an opportunity to prove she was good for something more than hiding in the basement and talking to dead murder victims. As far as Donata Santori was concerned, Marty “the Sneak” Williams was about to become the most talkative ex-thief in history . . . even if she had to follow him all the way to hell to make it happen.
Deborah Blake is the author of the Baba Yaga Series from Berkley (Wickedly Dangerous, Wickedly Wonderful, Wickedly Powerful) and has published nine books on modern witchcraft with Llewellyn Worldwide. When not writing, Deborah runs The Artisans’ Guild, a cooperative shop she founded with a friend in 1999, and also works as a jewelry maker, tarot reader, and energy healer. She lives in a 120-year-old farmhouse in rural upstate New York with five cats who supervise all her activities, both magical and mundane.