Raef was interrupted by a shriek that moved across his skin with the force of a blow. Aubrey’s mouth was wrenched open as she screamed in agony, a sound that was echoed eerily by her living sister, then her spirit wavered, like heat waves off a furnace, and she disappeared.
“So you saw, or at least heard something?” Mrs. Wilcox’s words were clipped, and in the silence that followed Aubrey’s disappearance her voice sounded unnaturally loud.
“Aubrey manifested and spoke to me. Briefly.” Raef answered her, although he didn’t look at the older woman. Instead, he was watching Lauren carefully, noting that her empty expression hadn’t returned, and even though her face couldn’t be called animated, she at least didn’t look zombielike anymore. And also noting that the torrent of emotions that had poured from Aubrey had been abruptly cut off. He cleared his throat, wishing like hell his coffee had a shot of Jack in it. “Please have a seat, Miss Wilcox. There are several things I need to go over with both you and your—”
“Why don’t you go home, Mother?” Lauren surprised him by interrupting in a brisk, no-nonsense voice as she sat in the chair beside her mother’s. “It would probably be better if I answered his questions alone.”
“What if it returns, Lauren?”
“Mother, I’ve told you before that I see Aubrey a lot. She’s dead. That doesn’t make her an it. She’s still Aubrey.”
“I wasn’t speaking of your sister’s ghost,” Mrs. Wilcox said coolly. “I’m referring to the horrid fugue state that sometimes comes over you.”
“Mother, I’ve tried to explain this to you before, too. It doesn’t just ‘come over’ me. There’s a reason for it.” Mrs. Wilcox’s face remained implacable and Lauren sighed. “I’m not going to be driving. If I zone out again I’m sure Mr. Raef can babysit me long enough to get me home.”
“Lauren, I …” her mother began, and then seemed to check herself. She stood and inclined her head formally to Raef. “I assume you will be certain my daughter returns home safely?”
“I will,” Raef said, not liking the family drama he’d stepped into.
“Then I will speak to you later, Lauren. It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Raef.”
After the door closed behind her mother, Lauren sat and met Raef’s gaze. “She’s not as cold and uncaring as she comes off as being. But all of this is just too much for her.”
“Define this,” he said.
“This would be my sister’s death and the fact the police have been unable to solve it. Add a dash of Aubrey haunting me with a sprinkle of possession and stir in a big blob of my soul being drained and you get a recipe that would freak out anyone’s mom.” Lauren’s voice was calm, her body appeared relaxed. It was only in her blue eyes that her desperation showed.
Raef got up and walked to the credenza. He topped off his coffee and then poured a generous cup for Lauren. “Cream or sugar, Miss Wilcox?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Both, and if we’re going to work together I wish you’d call me Lauren.”
He fixed the coffee and then handed it to her. “Lauren it is. My friends call me Raef.” He resumed his seat and gave her a brief smile. “Actually, my enemies call me Raef, too.”
“Do you have many enemies, Raef?”
“Some,” he said. “Do you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“How about your sister?”
“No. That’s just one of the reasons this whole thing is so awful. None of it makes sense.”
“Tell me what you know about your sister’s death, and I’ll see if I can begin making some sense out of it.”
“I don’t know where to start.” Lauren’s impassive expression tensed and when she sipped her coffee Raef noticed her hands were trembling.
“Start at the beginning. When was she killed?”
“July 15. She was alone, even though she shouldn’t have been. I’m almost always with her on jobs—” She paused, flinched in obvious pain. “I mean, I used to almost always be with her.” Lauren corrected herself and regained her composure, then continued in a steadier voice. “July is in the middle of our busy season for maintenance, so we often had to split up to finish jobs on time.”
“Maintenance? What type of work did you and your sister do?”
“Landscaping. July can be a rough month on plants if we don’t get enough rain and the Oklahoma heat turns up early, like it did this past July. Plants burn up if they’re not maintained properly through the heat. Aub and I own Two Sisters Landscaping. Or at least we did.” She faltered again, and took another sip of her coffee. “I’m sole owner now.”
“Of the company? As in you are the biggest stockholder?”
“Own the company as in Aubrey and I started it, ran it and were its first two employees.” She met his eyes. “Yes, we actually got our hands dirty. A lot.” She held up one hand and Raef’s brows lifted in surprise when he saw that instead of being well manicured and delicately white, Lauren had short, bluntly clipped nails and obvious calluses on her work-hardened palm. He would have never guessed that the daughters of a rich Tulsa socialite would be into something as blue-collar as landscaping.
“I would have thought a psychic would be better at hiding his thoughts,” Lauren said.
Raef looked from her hand to her eyes. Then, much to his own surprise, he heard himself admitting, “I usually am.”
“Dirt-digging girls from rich families must seem pretty unusual to you,” Lauren said.
Raef gave her a lopsided smile. “Sounds like it’s a reaction you’re used to.”
“Let’s just say our family wasn’t thrilled when Aubrey and I opened the business six years ago. We were lucky they couldn’t stop us.”
“Explain that,” Raef said. He didn’t feel the prickle of foreboding he usually did when he stumbled on what would eventually become a lead for solving a murder, so he really didn’t need to question Lauren about her family’s attitude about her business, but he realized he wanted to question her—wanted to know more.
And that was odd as hell.
“Aubrey and I received an inheritance from our grandfather when we turned twenty-one. It was ours to do whatever we wanted with—so we started our own business, but instead of buying a chic little boutique in Utica Square someone else could run, or following family tradition and investing in real estate, we bought plants and dirt. At least, that’s how our mother put it. Our decision wasn’t popular, but it was ours to make.”
“So, how was business?”
“Excellent. It still is. We have five employees and have had to actually turn away jobs. That’s why Aubrey was alone that day—we’d overextended and she was the expert in aquatic plants. So she went by herself to Swan Lake.”
Raef felt a shock of recognition, and couldn’t believe he hadn’t put two and two together before then. “Aubrey Wilcox, middle of July, electrocuted to death while she was working with the water plants on the Swan Lake island.” Then he realized why he hadn’t recognized the name on his appointment book. It wasn’t a murder investigation. The death had been ruled accidental. What the hell?
“It wasn’t an accident,” Lauren said firmly, as if she was the mind reader.
“But if I pulled the police report it would say your sister’s death was accidental, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes. Does that mean you won’t take the case?”
“No, I’ll take the case.” Which was nothing unusual. Sometimes families needed his services for closure. Hell, not just his services, but psychics in general. The police could tell the bereaved over and over that it was suicide,