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Cassandra Palmer 1

By:Touch the Dark

Chapter 1

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the obituary. The fact that it had my name on it was sort of a clue. What I didn't know was how they'd found me, and who the guy was with the sense of humor. Antonio has never been much for comedy. I've never figured out if that has something to do with being dead, or if he's always been a morose son of a bitch.

The obit was on my office PC's screen in place of the usual travel agency logo. It looked like part of a newspaper page had been scanned and then set as the computer's wallpaper, and it hadn't been there when I'd gone to get a salad half an hour earlier. If I hadn't been so freaked out, I'd have been impressed. I didn't know that any of Tony's goons even knew what a computer was.

I scrambled around in a filing cabinet for my gun while I read the joker's description of my gruesome death later that evening. I had a better gun at my apartment, along with a few other surprises, but going back there probably wasn't my best move. And unless I was expecting enough trouble to make it worth the risk of carrying concealed, the only thing I kept in my purse was a small canister of mace for potential muggers. After more than three years of relative safety, I'd started to question the need for even that. I'd gotten careless and could only hope it wasn't about to get me killed.

Under my name was a paragraph-long description of an unfortunate incident involving me, an unknown rifleman and two bullets through the head. The paper had tomorrow's date, but the hit was to occur at 8:43 tonight on Peachtree Street. I glanced at my watch; it was twenty to eight, so I'd been given an hour's head start. That seemed too generous for Tony. My best guess for why I wasn't already dead was that killing me outright was too easy for a guy who had people killed all the time. In my case, he wanted something special.

I finally found my Smith & Wesson 3913 under a flyer for a cruise to Rio. I wondered if it was a sign. No way did I have the kind of cash to get out of the country, though, and a chubby-cheeked, blue-eyed blonde might look a little obvious next to all those sloe-eyed senhoritas. Plus, I didn't know if Tony had associates in Brazil, but I wouldn't put it past him. When you've been around long enough to remember drinking Michelangelo under the table, you make a few contacts.

I fished a pack of gum out of the gun compartment in my purse and shoved the Smith & Wesson in. It fit like it had been made for it, which it had. I'd bought the gun, my first, and three of the handbags almost four years ago on the recommendation of a Fed named Jerry Sydell. Like a lot of people, he'd thought I was a nut case, but since I'd helped to cripple one of the biggest crime families in Philly, he was willing to give me some free advice. He helped me pick out the 9-mm semiautomatic pistol, which combined a grip small enough for my hands with the power to discourage anything on two legs. «Except for the ghosts and ghoulies,» he'd said with a grin. «You're on your own with them.» He'd also taken me to a practice range every day for two weeks, and got me to the point that, even if I still couldn't hit the side of a barn, I didn't miss it by much. I'd kept up the practice sessions whenever I could afford them, so now I could definitely hit a barn—if it was a big one and I was standing within about ten feet of it. I was secretly hoping I'd never have to shoot anything besides a target. It wasn't my fault it didn't work out that way.

I think Jerry sort of liked me—I reminded him of his eldest kid—and he wanted to see me go straight. He thought I'd got in with the wrong crowd when too young to know better, which was truer than he knew, then wised up and decided to turn state's evidence. How he explained the fact that a twenty-year-old orphan knew all about the inner workings of a major crime family I'll never know, but it sure wasn't faith in «that witchcraft crap,» as he put it. Jerry didn't believe in the supernatural—any of it. Since I didn't want him to lock me in a small padded cell somewhere, I didn't mention my visions, or how close he'd been with the ghosts and ghoulies comment.

I've always been kind of a ghost magnet. Maybe it's part of the whole clairvoyance thing; I don't know. Tony was always careful about what he let me study—I think he was afraid I'd figure out some way to use my abilities against him if I knew too much—so I'm not very knowledgeable about my talent. Of course, it might be that my attractiveness to the spirit world is simply because I can see them: it must be a downer, haunting someone who doesn't even know you're there. Not that they haunt me, exactly, but they do like showing off when I'm around.

Sometimes that's not a bad thing, like with the old woman I met in an alley as a teenage runaway. I tend to see ghosts as solid much of the time, especially if they are new and powerful, so it took me a while to realize what she was. She was there to act as a sort of guardian angel over her grandson, whom she'd helped to raise. She died when he was ten, and her daughter's boyfriend started beating him as soon as he went to live with them. The boy ran away in less than a month. She told me that she hadn't spent a decade watching over him to abandon him now, and she was sure God wouldn't mind waiting on her a bit. At her request, I gave him enough money to get on a bus to her sister's place in San Diego before I moved on. Naturally, I didn't mention that sort of thing to Jerry. He didn't believe in anything he couldn't see, touch or put a bullet in, kind of limiting subjects for conversation. Needless to say, he also didn't believe in vampires, at least not until a couple of Tony's guys caught up with him one night and tore his throat out.

I knew what was about to happen to Jerry because I Saw his last few seconds as I was getting in the bath. As usual, I got a vivid, full-color, up-close-a