Excerpt

Flight Risk

Cherie Priest

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Flight Risk, by Cherie Priest. In the following passage, a psychic gets a visit from an old friend caught up in a mysterious case involving some rather disgustingly gathered evidence.

Leda was taking a lunch break when a heads-up knock on her door and a friendly “Hello” announced that Grady Merritt was doing the same. “Hey there!” she attempted to reply, but she was still working on a mouthful of pizza, so it came out garbled and a little bit gooey. “Hold on a sec,” she added, and that didn’t come out too much clearer. Grady pulled up a secondhand IKEA seat while she chewed and then swabbed her mouth with a napkin.

He crossed one leg over the other and grinned. “Don’t choke. If you choke, I can’t ask you for a real quick favor.”

Her final swallow was too big by half, and it stuck in her throat. She seized her soda and chugged it. “Sorry,” she belched. She gave her mouth one more napkin dab, then wadded it up with her paper plate and stuffed it all into the trash with the last of her crust. “Sorry,” she said again, this time without the bass reverb. “A favor? You want a favor? Sure, I’m in. Wait, what kind of favor?”

“Just a small thing.”

“Is it connected to a case?” she asked eagerly.

“No. Yes. Well, probably—but it’s not my case, exactly.”

With one eyebrow raised, she said, “So it’s not exactly for your job?”

“No.”

“You’re just . . . what? Chasing murder leads for funsies?”

“No,” he said again. “It might not be a murder, though we’re pretty sure the guy is dead. It might’ve been an animal attack, or an accident. Here’s the thing: the dead guy checked out somewhere near Mount Rainier, in the park, so this one belongs to the Pierce County guys. Technically, I’m not supposed to be doing this.”

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Knowing that the favor was illicit made it that much more interesting. “Then why are you poking it with a stick?”

“Because my stupid dog . . .” He sighed, and then, before Leda could ask, he launched into the sordid tale of a spooked and fleeing Cairo, three days of agony and day-tripping down to the mountain, and then the triumphant return of the dog—bearing gifts. Or one big gift. And some subsequent smaller gifts, deposited in coiled piles in his fenced backyard. “We promised the Pierce County officers that we’d save his shit for three days, bag it up individually and date each bag, and then send it back for analysis. I think we’ve got some finger bones in a bag in the garage.”

Fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, Leda leaned forward on her elbows, her chin in her hands. “That’s wild. Did they find any clues on the dog? Did you brush him and everything?”

He chuckled and waved one hand like this was all old news.

“Yeah, yeah, we dusted him for prints and the whole nine yards.” Then, in case she couldn’t tell he was joking, he added, “I’m kidding. But they processed him like a piece of evidence, brushing him out and taking a bunch of hair samples. He loved that part. He didn’t love the part where they swabbed his teeth and gums, nor the bit where they put a little antiseptic on his scratches. But that was nothing compared to when they cleaned out his ears or trimmed his nails. He acted like he was being beaten with a sock full of pennies.”

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“They even trimmed his nails? Oh, wow, just like a murder victim. In case he scratched somebody, or something?”

“Yeah, we can skip the groomer this month. The Pierce guys were looking for some clue as to where the hell our dead man might have wandered—in case they can find the rest of his corpse. We’re bringing Cairo back down to Rainier on Saturday; I’m going to let him look around and see if he’ll return to the source.”

She shook her head sympathetically. “Well, I’m just glad you finally found him. I’d be worried sick if Brutus ever ran away.”

Grady’s eyes narrowed. “Isn’t Brutus a fish?”

“Swam away, whatever.” She waved her hand as if this were a mere technicality. “I’d be beside myself.”

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“Have you ever had a real pet? Something you could hold, rather than . . . I don’t know, what do you do with a fish? Watch it?”

Aghast, she clutched her chest. “What do you do with him? I feed him. I sing to him. I talk to him. I confess to him, and I give him mushy peas with a toothpick when he gets sick and bloaty.” She settled back into her seat, as if this question had been sufficiently answered. In fact, she’d never had so much as a hamster. Her father always claimed to be allergic to literally everything; privately, Leda assumed that he simply didn’t like animals very much. “But to answer your other question, no. My parents aren’t really ‘animal people,’ and I guess I’m not, either. Except for Brutus. He’s pretty special.”

“All right, fine. You’re fish people.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t make it weird. Anyway, what’s this favor? I assume you’ve got something you want me to hold? See if I get any vibes, or whatever?”

“That is correct.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic ziplock bag with a shiny gold ring inside. “Behold, one of this morning’s findings.”

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She did not immediately reach for it. “This morning’s . . . findings. Dare I ask where you found this finding? Or can I safely guess?”

“If your safe guess is that I found it in a pile of dog shit, you got it in one. But look, I washed it off. See? It’s nice and shiny.”

“You washed off evidence?”

Defensively, he said, “It’d already passed through a dog’s digestive tract. What harm would washing it do? Erase fingerprints? Come on. Here, I did the gross part for you already.”

She eyed it warily. “You touch it first.”

“Fine.” He unzipped the bag, pulled out the ring as if it were perfectly sterile, and, hell, he might just pop it into his mouth for good measure. But he didn’t. “Here you go.”

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Leda leaned forward and collected the ring with the tips of her finger and thumb. “Ew,” she declared.

“Don’t you have to hold it tighter than that? Closer or something? Come on, give it a good, hard squeeze.”

“I don’t go down to the station and tell you how to nab perps, now, do I? Don’t tell me how to do my job.” She brightened and almost forgot what she was holding or where it’d been a few hours before. “Oh, hey, speaking of—I have a new psychic detecting client!”

“A what now?”

“A client who wants me to psychically detect something. Or find someone, to be more precise.”

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Grady’s ears almost visibly perked up. “A missing person?”

“Yeah, this guy’s sister has been missing for a couple of weeks, and he’s bringing me some of her stuff to fondle in hopes of helpful woo-woo.”

He wilted. “Ah. Well, never mind.”

At first, his disappointment confused her. Then she got it. “Oh, so the leg belonged to a man? Not a woman?”

“I’m afraid so. For a second there, I got my hopes up. Not that I honestly thought it’d be that easy—that your new client was looking for the owner of our disembodied leg. I believe in synchronicity, but that would really be a bridge too far. But it was worth asking.”

“It’s always worth asking,” she agreed. Finally, she let the ring sit on her palm. “Sorry, but let’s see if I can tell you anything helpful about this nasty-ass ring.”

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“The ring isn’t nasty. It’s just a ring. A nice, clean ring. Don’t think about the dog.”

“I’m trying—shut up.” She closed her eyes, closed her fingers, and concentrated.

“Getting anything?”

She cracked one eye open. “You know this can take a minute, right? Be patient.” Was she getting anything? Yes. Could she tell what it was? Not quite. She felt like she was moving, a passenger inside a machine. She sensed the rumble of an engine and swift progress toward something, somewhere. “I feel . . . motion. Like I’m riding inside a car.”

“Like a dog? Coming back from Mount Rainier, for example?” “Could be,” she admitted. “No.” She changed her mind. “I don’t think so, but I can’t explain why.” The quarters simply felt more cramped than Grady’s vehicle. “Anyway, there’s a window.”

He shifted in his seat, wiggling forward. “What do you see out the window?”

She frowned and thought and listened, and examined the odd sensation for any clues. “Nothing, just the light combined with blue sky, I think. Could be a car window, I guess. Yours or somebody else’s. I don’t see it very clearly.”

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“Is that all?”

“Look, I’m not a vending machine for clues, my good sir. You get what you get, and you don’t pitch a fit.” She took a deep breath and tried to dive back in, feel around, see if there was anything else. “Hm. I don’t think it’s your car. I don’t think it’s Cairo.”

“No?” he asked eagerly.

“No, there’s a hand. Not your hand, because it’s wearing this ring.”

“Is there anything distinctive about it?”

“Dude, no,” she said grouchily. “It’s just a guy’s hand. It doesn’t look especially old or young, no tattoos or scars that I can see. Just the ring.” She opened her eyes. “There’s something . . . sticky about it, though.”

“I told you, I cleaned it off—”

“No, I mean there’s something about it that . . . It’s hard to explain, but it’s digging in and won’t let go. It’s very demanding. It wants my attention.”

“Not sure the ring really wants anything, per se,” he protested. “Maybe it’s my woo-woo brain insisting on something that I’m just not hearing,” she concluded, unfolding her palm and handing the ring back to Grady. “There’s something going on, I can tell—but I didn’t really get any scene, or voice, or anything.”

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“No bright flashing arrows from your subconscious, pointing at the clue?”

“Not so much flashing arrows as a single flag waving very insistently—somewhere in the distance,” she added with a note of irritation. “That thing is . . .” She pointed at him, at the ring. “Peculiar. It belonged to whoever owned the leg, but I can’t say if he was murdered or died by accident or misadventure. That’s all I know for sure, yeah. The ring was his and not something Cairo snacked off a completely unrelated disembodied hand.”

“Is that your gut or your keen psychic senses?”

“There’s a lot of overlap, if I’m honest. I can’t always tell them apart, so I lend them equal weight, and it usually works out. I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could hang on to this for a while?”

“Nope, sorry.” He tucked it back into the baggie and returned it to his pocket. “Like I said, it belongs to Pierce County. Oh well. Thanks for your time, as always, but my lunch break’s over, and I need to get back to work.” With that, he left her office.

When he was gone, Leda sat there thinking about the ring and its unusual inscription. It rang a bell in the back of her head—or else that was her woo-woo energy trying to flag her down. She didn’t like not being able to help, and, honestly, a disembodied leg and a crap-contaminated wedding ring added up to an interesting mystery. No wonder Grady had held on to the evidence. She would’ve done the same thing.

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She picked up her phone to text Niki but thought better of it. She opened her laptop and pulled up a browser. “What was that inscription?” she asked the screen, and then she asked Google. “Something like ‘My heart, my life, my one and only love.’ Right?” That was close enough to get a hit when she combined it with “romantic,” “ring,” and “wedding.” Her Google-fu was always pretty good, and it didn’t often fail her.

“Holy shit, it’s from Sherlock Holmes.” No, wait. The quote didn’t come from a Sherlock Holmes story, but it was a lesser-known line from one of Doyle’s other books, one she’d never heard of, called The White Company. The full and correct quote was ‘You are my heart, my life, my one and only thought.’ A pretty standard romantic sentiment, and conveniently short enough to engrave on jewelry. She wondered how common it was.

Leda drummed her nails on the wireless mouse, on the mouse pad, on the edge of the laptop.

It couldn’t be that common, could it? Surely the inscription would stand out to anyone who’d done the work. Maybe someone would remember it.

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She tried her luck with Google again and turned up a couple dozen jewelers in the greater King County area. Then she shook her head. No, the leg came from south of Seattle. But then again, that didn’t mean that its owner lived there, did it? Visitors came to see the great, quiet volcano from all over the world. Still, she looked up Pierce County jewelers to cover all her bases. Alas, she found almost as many prospective candidates down there as she did in King County. “What if I narrowed it down a little. ”

If she kept it to just Seattle and Tacoma, there were only about two dozen likely suspects between them. She glanced at her phone to check the time. Well, what else was she doing right then and there? Jack squat, that’s what. Might as well make herself useful.

Or satisfy her curiosity. Or both.

One by one, she called up the jewelers and sweetly, politely, asked about a man’s wedding ring engraving—an old quote from an old book. She got through nine of them before she hit pay dirt with a family jeweler in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, a little north of Lake Union.

The woman on the other end of the phone sounded both ancient and knowledgeable, and Leda was effusive in her thanks.

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“You remember the engraving? Do you remember who had it done?”

“Oh, those rings were engraved probably, I don’t know, twenty years ago or more, at least. I remember the quote partly because it was so unusual, but mostly because the husband brought his back to the shop last year to be cleaned and enlarged.”

“We get older and wiser and fatter, right?” Leda teased.

“Some of us,” came the arch and vaguely amused reply. “It’s a fiddly task, enlarging a ring without damaging the inscription. That’s why it stands out in my mind; we had to charge a little extra. Now, you understand that I can’t just hand out customer information, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, ma’am, I do. I absolutely do, and I appreciate you even telling me that yours is the shop that did the work. I’ll, um . . . I’ll pass the information along.” She made note of the shop’s name, Harrison Hughes Family Jewelers. Leda’s Spidey-Sense was tingling, as Niki would say. She thanked the woman again and hung up.

Then she dialed Grady. Before he could say anything, Leda blurted out, “I found the shop that engraved the ring!”

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Pause. “I’m sorry, you did what, now?”

“I followed my gut!” she declared proudly. “Made a few phone calls. Guess what, I think your victim is local to Seattle, not Tacoma or Puyallup or any other points south of here.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because the work was done in Wallingford, a place called Harrison Hughes Family Jewelers. The woman on the phone remembered it because the guy it belonged to brought it back to be cleaned and embiggened.”

“Em . . . biggened?”

“Come on, you know what I’m talking about.” She explained what the woman had told her, about the difficulty of enlarging a ring without destroying the inscription.

“Huh. And this was last year, you said?”

“Yup, so he’s probably still living in the area. Or he was until fairly recently. Not because he moved, but—”

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“Because he’s dead, yes. I get it,” he said drolly. Then he said, “Thanks for the tip—that’s really great; I mean it. I hadn’t planned to call around, since this isn’t my case and I won’t even have the ring much longer, but—”

“Don’t get too excited yet; the woman on the phone wouldn’t give me the guy’s name or contact info. But I bet she’d give it to you. I bet the Pierce County guys would be tickled if they thought you’d saved them the trouble of that legwork, and,” she said with excited emphasis, “best of all, the corpse is local! If he was murdered, maybe he’ll become your case after all!”

From FLIGHT RISK by Cherie Priest. Copyright © 2022 by Cherie Priest. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Atria. All rights reserved.




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