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Cassandra Palmer 1

By:Touch the Dark

«Portia! That wasn't funny!»

The laugh tinkled again and a pretty southern belle complete with swinging hoopskirts materialized in front of me. «Oh, yes, it was. Did you see their faces?» Mirth sparkled in what had once been eyes bluer than mine. Tonight they were the color of the churning clouds overhead.

I fished around in my purse for a tissue to wipe off my boots. «I thought you weren't going to do that anymore. If you scare off the tourists, who will you play with?» There aren't a lot of companies willing to pretend that Atlanta, like Savannah or Charleston, has enough of a historic district to make horse-drawn tours worthwhile. If Portia kept up her games, whatever southern charm had managed to survive the urban sprawl—which offered such time-honored favorites as the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center and the Underground Atlanta mall—was doomed.

Portia gave me a pout so attractive that she must have practiced it in front of a mirror when she was alive. «You're no fun, Cassie.»

I shot her an unhappy look as I tried to clean the mud-splattered leather, but all I managed was to streak it. Never once had I made a run for it looking chic. «I'm plenty of fun, just not tonight.» It had started to rain, and the droplets were falling through Portia to spatter on the concrete. I hate that; it's like looking at a TV through too much interference. «You haven't seen Billy Joe, have you?»

I call Billy Joe my guardian spirit, but that isn't entirely accurate. He's more of a pain in the ass who occasionally turns out to be useful, but right then I wasn't feeling picky. Billy is what remains of an Irish American gambler who failed to lose the right hand of cards in 1858. A couple of irate cowboys, who correctly assumed they'd been cheated, shoved him into a sack and tossed it in the Mississippi. Luckily for him, he'd recently relieved a visiting countess of a large, ugly necklace that served as a sort of supernatural battery, collecting magical energy from the natural world and storing it until needed. When his spirit left his body, it came to rest in the necklace, which he haunted the same way other ghosts did more conventional things, such as crypts. It gave him enough power to continue to exist, but it was my occasional donations of living energy that made him as mobile as he was. I had found the necklace in a junk shop when I was seventeen, and Billy and I had been a team ever since. Of course, he couldn't take a message to the club for me so I didn't have to go in person, but he could serve as lookout in case any bad guys got too close. Assuming I could find him, that was, something that required a little ghostly help.

There are a lot of ghosts in Atlanta, and most are your run-of-the-mill, let's-haunt-something-until-we-work-through-our-issues-or-fade-away types like Billy Joe. There are also a few guardian spirits and an occasional psychic imprint, not that the latter are technically ghosts. Imprints are like a supernatural theater that shows the same movie over and over until you want to scream. Since it's usually something traumatic, running into one isn't fun. I'd spent my free time for a couple of months after I moved in learning the streets in the area, and one of the main things I'd been looking for was imprint zones. I'd found about fifty dealing with the burning of the city during the Civil War, but most were too weak to cause me much more than a twinge. But there was a big one between my apartment and the agency where a slave had once been ripped apart by a pack of dogs. I started taking the long way around after I got caught in it one day. I have a lot of memories I'd just as soon forget; I don't need other people's nightmares.

Portia, however, isn't an imprint. Sometimes, I thought she was worse. Portia is one of those ghosts who relive the tragic parts of their lives over and over, but not like a mindless movie. They're haunters with a fixation, similar to an obsessive human who wants to wash her hands fifty times a day. And they're mobile, so they can follow you around and run on about whatever is bothering them 24/7. I broke Billy Joe of that early—he's upset because he died young, but I can handle only so many choruses of «the life I should have had» before I start to get crabby.

Unfortunately, I'd caught Portia in a talkative mood, and it took more than ten minutes to find out—after a detailed description of the ivory buttons she'd sewn onto her never-used wedding gown—that she hadn't seen Billy Joe. Typical. I spend most of my time wishing he'd go away, but he never gets lost until I need him. My level of aggravation must have shown on my face, because Portia stopped in the middle of the story about a party where two officers had fought each other over the last place on her dance card. It was one of her favorites and she was clearly not pleased to see my attention wandering. «You aren't listening, Cassie. Is something wrong?» An angry snap of her little lace-edged fan said there had damn well better be.

«Tony's found, me and I need to get out of town. But I have to go by the club first, and I need a lookout.»

I knew as soon as I said it that I should have kept my mouth shut. Portia's eyes got even bigger, and she clapped her dainty gloved hands together delightedly. «Oh, what fun! I'll help!»

«Um, that's really generous of you, Portia, but I don't think… I mean, there's a lot of ways into the club, and you couldn't cover all of them.» But Portia got a familiar, steely glint in her eyes and I immediately relented. Most of the time she was sugar sweet, but get her upset at you and things could get bad fast.

«I'll find help,» she promised. «It'll be like a party!» She disappeared in a swirl of petticoats, and I sighed. Some of Portia's friends were even more annoying than she was, but any lookouts were better than none. And I didn't have to worry about Tony's boys noticing them. Even if he'd sent vamps, they woul