The Sent of Shadows

Sign of the Zodiac series, book 1

Vicki Pettersson

To Roger.

Everyone has a reason.

You’re mine.


He didn’t look dangerous, not at first glance. Still, a girl can never be too careful on a blind date, and that’s why I’d insisted Mr. Sand meet me in a popular steakhouse nestled in a casino dead center on the Las Vegas Strip. It was, I’d thought, the most public of all public places. Yet now, watching the way shadows from the muted lighting sought out the unhealthy hollows beneath his eyes and cheeks, and the way he toyed with his blue cheese and endive appetizer, I decided the most ominous thing about Mr. Sand was a deeply embedded issue with self- control, and the only thing I was in danger of dying from was boredom. Of course, that was before I really knew him. And before my death the very next day.

At the time I had no way of knowing Mr. Sand’s true intentions, not like now. Besides, who knew homicidal maniacs came wrapped in horse-faced packages with little to no fashion sense? Beyond that, he was so skinny his Adam’s apple bobbed like a buoy above the opening of his pressed shirt, while knobby bones protruded at both knuckles and wrists. Ichabod Crane in a poorly fitted suit. Not exactly intimidating.

Looks aside, the next mark against him was his first name.

“Ajax?” I repeated as our soups arrived, not quite sure I’d heard right.

He nodded, lifting his spoon, though I noted he didn’t actually use it. “Ajax.”

“Like the cleaner?”

His smile was tight. “Like the Greek warrior.”

I mean, really.

Cursing my sister for setting me up on yet another blind date—and myself for letting her—I nevertheless tried to plant my feet firmly on the bright side of things. At least this one could walk without dragging his knuckles on the ground. And even if the woman in me had recoiled at first sight, the photographer in me had something to do.

I tried to picture Ajax in a bank, as he’d already told me how the world’s financial industry would fall flat on its ass without him, but I couldn’t quite imagine him languishing behind a desk. There was too much movement, too much latent energy in those snaking limbs for that. His fingers twined and untwined, his bony elbows rose to rest on the table only to drop a second later, and his eyes darted around the dining room, taking in everything but never fully settling. I’d like to still those relentless limbs with my camera, I decided. Take time to study those shifting eyes. See just who Mr. Sand became when seen in two dimensions instead of three.

He looked at me like he knew what I was thinking.

And it was that look, those eyes, that sent up the first red flag. I don’t mean the color, a blue so light it was nearly transparent, but more the way they tried to own me. I licked my lips, and his eyes dropped to watch my tongue dart out. I ran a hand through my bobbed hair, and felt him following the movement so that my fingers fisted there. I exhaled deeply, forcing myself to relax, and for some reason that made him smile.

I was jumpy, I confess, but I recognized that hungry look. I’d seen it once before, long before I’d ever started dating. I’d hoped never to see it again.

“So, what do you do for a living?” Ajax asked, finally breaking the silence. “I mean, you don’t just live off Daddy’s money, do you?” This was followed by a shallow “just joking” guffaw, one belied by how carefully he continued to watch me.

I ran my fingers over the stem of my wineglass, wondering just how long it would take Ajax to notice that mine weren’t the hands of a debutante, but those of a fighter. “I take photographs.”

“Like weddings or models or something?”

“Like people. Shapes. Shadows. Usually night shots using natural lighting and gritty settings. Reality.”

“So…” he said, drawing the word out, “you don’t make money at it?”

“Not yet.”

He looked at me like I should apologize. He probably was a fucking banker after all.

“Sounds like a waste of time,” he said, then turned away from my stare.

His little jab stung more than it should have. Normally I don’t care what people think, but lately, looking at the world through a refracted lens, viewing the worth of places and people and objects in terms of light and shadow, black and white, wasn’t as satisfying as it used to be. Restless, I had recently begun taking more self- portraits than anything else; zeroing in on singular things like my knuckles, constantly red and callused from nylon punching bags, or my eyes—right or left, rarely both—which were tawny and earth-colored during the day, but blackened like a clouded lake in the dark, or when I was extremely angry.

Instead of looking for enemies in the faces of strangers, I’d begun turning the camera on myself, and I didn’t need Freud or even Dr. Phil to tell me I was searching for something. Question was, would I like what I eventually found?

“Banking, on the other hand,” I began sweetly, once the server had delivered our entrées, “sounds absolutely captivating. Please don’t skip one fascinating little detail.”

Ajax’s mouth creased even thinner than his hairline. “God, I should have known by looking that you’re nothing like your sister.”

I didn’t really consider it an insult, but I was sure my eyes had gone black as tar. “And how, exactly, do you know what my sister’s like?”

“I read her profile in Playboy,” he said nastily, and shoved some saffron potatoes into his mouth.

In turn, I settled my own fork on the side of my plate. So that was it.

Though similar in build, Olivia and I had taken vastly different approaches to both our sexuality and our lives. The issue Ajax was referring to had come out three months earlier, and while I didn’t approve of Olivia’s overt approach to sexuality, I understood the reason behind it. Ironically enough, it stemmed from the same origin as my own.

Good ol’ Ajax here had probably also read the recent article about the Archer family empire in Fortunes and Fates magazine:

“Lacking the acute business sense of her gaming magnate father, Xavier, and the brilliant social acumen of her glamorous sister, Olivia…and, indeed, any notably positive attributes whatsoever, Ms. Joanna Archer seems to have eschewed her public duty as one of the richest heiresses on the planet for a life of frivolity and self- interest.”

Self-interest I could understand, but frivolous? Like writing scathing gossip columns about other people’s lives was brain surgery?

So it seemed my sister hadn’t given Ajax my phone number. In all probability, Olivia didn’t know him at all. Apparently he’d been counting on someone who looked and acted like a Playmate, and hoping that perhaps my reported self-interest, along with my inheritance, could be funneled his way. That he’d have a chance with the token black sheep of the Archer dynasty.

Wrong, Ajax, I thought, picking up my wineglass. On all accounts.

“Look,” he said, spreading his hands before him as though discussing stock options. “I just came to Vegas for a good time. I thought I’d look you up since we seem to have some of the same interests…”

A.k.a. my money.

“…and see if you wouldn’t mind showing me around. That’s all. Why can’t we just have some fun?” When I only continued to stare, he dropped his bony elbows on the table with a force that shook the plates, and abandoned

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