Thursday, February 29, 2024

#Review - Rift in the Soul by Faith Hunter #Fantasy #Contemporary

 Soulwood # 6
Format: Paperback, 400 pages
Release Date: March 5, 2024
Publisher: ACE
Source: Publisher
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Nell Ingram and her team face a dire, supernatural evil in this newest thrilling paranormal procedural in the New York Times bestselling Soulwood series.

Nell Ingram draws her powers from deep in the earth, and uses them to help Psy-LED, the Psychometric Law Enforcement Division, which solves paranormal crimes. When a local vampire calls to report a dead body on her compound, Nell knows she and her team have to be ready for anything.

But the dead body is just the beginning of a mystery that involves supernaturals of all kinds, including some of the most powerful vampires in the country. As Nell gets closer to the truth, she begins to understand that the perpetrator is tracking her too—and that there is something personal about this crime. Something with roots that go almost as deep as those in Soulwood.

Faith Hunter's Rift in the Soul is the Sixth installment in the author's Soulwood series. Story Locale: Tennessee. Main character: Nell Ingram. Nell uses her innate magical abilities to work with an agency policing paranormals in this series set in the same world as the Jane Yellowrock novels. Nell Ingram is a Special Agent for Psy-LED, the Psychometric Law Enforcement Division, which solves paranormal crimes. This is a dangerous time for Psy-LED. 

Weird stuff is happening the the vampire world. Scions are walking into the sun after getting their souls back thanks to Jane Yellowrock's actions in saving an Angel from a Demon. Nell, Rick LaFleur, and Ayatas Firewind have been called out to the local vampire's house - Ming of Glass, Master of the City of Knoxville - to retrieve a dead body. Expecting a trap - their expectations are rewarded when they are forced to defend themselves. The vampires had been acting strangely since the crowning of the Emperor of Europe, and Ming blames Nell who isn't quite human. 

When Nell greets Ming of Glass, everything is off. She learns that some of Ming's Vampires have walked into the sun, and it seems that a really dangerous man named Tomas de Torquemada, who was once a Catholic priest, is looking for something called the Blood Tarot to change the world and his destiny. Interesting since Nell herself has also been searching for the Blood Tarot. Ming tries to get Nell to kill a powerful and ancient vampire, Tomas who plans to destroy everything. 

Because of what happened at Ming's, and the fact that many, many factions really want to get their hands on the Bloot Tarot, Nell is given a bodyguard (Yummy aka Yvonne) to help protect her from Tomás and his vampires, black witches, blood witches, power-hungry humans, shifters, and others. We also learn that Soul, the Deputy Director of Phy-LED, and a powerful arcenciel, has been missing for 3 weeks. To make things worse, a family secret is about to be exposed, and Nell and her team need to move quickly to avoid further bloodshed.

We learn so much more about Nell’s family thanks to a very determined Nell who has had enough of her family and their secrets. As her powers grow, the same can be said of her younger sister, Mud whom she recently adopted. Mud is also gaining powers as a plant-woman, throughout Soulwood’s land. We get to see Esther, who recently divorced, and has two twin babies, now living in Soulwood, and is also gaining powers. When vamps attack, they have zero chance against the power of 3 plant women. 

Nell's team is made up of witches, shifters, and empaths. Nell, who calls herself Plant Woman, fits right in with her Soulwood powers, and she now has a solid foundation of support. The team includes Occam (who she intends to marry) Ayatas (Jane's brother), T-Laine, JoJo, Tandy, Mandy (newest member) & Rick, who dare I say isn't all that bad? Nell has really come into her own, as she is a powerful woman controlling her Soulwood land and plants, and her connection to the Green Knight, protector of Soulwood, has grown stronger. Nell is in love with her cat-man, Occam, and since I am here, the Christmas time wedding is the perfect ending for this book and series? Whose to say?


I stepped on the dirt by the driveway and sniffed the winter air. A cold snap had come through at dusk, and the scent of the Tennessee River only yards away rode high and warm on the night, rising in a swirling mist that obscured much of the landscape. There wasn't time for a deep read of the land, but I needed a feel for it, so I bent and touched the soil with a fingertip, sending my thoughts through the upper layers of dirt and lawn, skimming the surface.

The earth around me was unsettled, as property walked by the undead usually was, but there was no sense of danger. Nothing hurtled through the earth and grabbed me, no wild energies, no fear, no vines or roots, so that was good, but the soil felt different from the last time I had read it. The sense of death was stronger and there was a mixture of something disturbed, disquieted here, so I pushed a little deeper. I caught a hint of fire and excitement, of an unresolved exhilaration, as if the earth rode the brink of something wild. It felt the way it must feel to be at the top of a roller coaster, ready to plunge down. Though I had never been on a roller coaster and couldn't imagine why I ever would want to.

The important thing was that nothing dangerous leaped at me. That was a good start.

I opened my eyes and studied the property owned by Ming Zhane of Glass, the Master of the City of Knoxville. There were several dark circles near the rear of the otherwise pristine lawn, like burned spots, places that might correlate with the sensation of fire. There were burn warnings all over the eastern half of the state, but I could envision Ming demanding the autumn leaves be burned. Her blood-servants would have complied.

While I was down low and out of sight of the house, I pulled the mini-psy-meter from a pocket. It was about the size of a cigarette case, and while not as sensitive as the larger model, it would do in a pinch. Before leaving HQ, I had checked the device against the ambient magics of the witch and the were-creatures of Unit Eighteen, and so a quick reading was possible.

Of the four psysotopes, the device settled firmly in the reading for vampires, so whatever this visit was for, it was likely not a situation with mixed paranormal-creature politics.

I stood, stepped back onto the drive, and glanced at the other cars. Their lights were off, drivers barely visible in the thickening mist. When I gave a thumbs-up, they climbed out of their vehicles, closed their doors, and walked to me across the concrete.

Regional Director Ayatas FireWind, the man I had taken to calling my boss-boss, gave me a small nod, telling me to go ahead. They had my back. Rick LaFleur, Special Agent in Charge of PsyLED Unit Eighteen, glanced at the house and back to me, his black eyes telling me to be careful. Even had there been no mention of a body, the two bosses would have come as my backup because, as Rick said when the call came in, "Weird shit is happening in the vamp world."

I looked back at the potted tree strapped into the passenger seat of my newish car and contemplated bringing the tree with me. Instead I closed the car door I had left open, shutting off the interior lights. Full dark fell on us. Ming's people hadn't turned on the security and landscape lights, which was a little odd. The mist from the river swirled higher and closer, more dense. I locked the car with the small fob.

I reseated my Glock 20, not that I expected to need it here. Ming had requested my presence, personally, to report a dead body, and when the new Master of the City of Knoxville wanted to report a crime, Unit Eighteen listened. Thanks to her, I was lead on this interview, and should Ming be bringing a case to the unit, and not vampire politics, it was possible that I would be lead on my very first case. Rick was betting it was vampire politics, but either way, anytime there were vampires, there was danger.

The two bosses had attended the coronation of the Emperor of Europe only a week past, and they had brought back tales of weird vampire actions and unusual personnel changes. They had even seen a vamp laughing with her fangs out, which they couldn't explain. Vampires could not laugh-laughter was a human emotion-while in predator state. It wasn't possible. Yet they had both seen her laughing.

Since LaFleur and FireWind had returned from New Orleans, vamp rumors of the wild and crazy kind had begun to circulate in Knoxville too. None of the reports were believable, and none had involved video evidence, but everyone wanted a look-see at the locals.

T. Laine, Unit Eighteen's resident witch, had called it "wackadoodle stuff."

"Comms check," FireWind said.

"Ingram here."

"LaFleur here."

"Copy, FireWind, Ingram, LaFleur," Jones said, back at HQ.

Rick and Aya positioned themselves in front and behind me, and together we crossed the concrete drive to the front entrance. Ming didn't live in a castle like Dracula, but she owned a megamansion and several acres on the edge of the Tennessee River. Prime real estate. An attached six-car garage, greenhouse, big barn, and outbuildings. I smelled manure and hay and that familiar scent of horse I remembered from my upbringing at the God's Cloud of Glory Church. It brought a sense of peace that tried to replace the natural uneasiness of a law enforcement officer visiting a vampire lair after dark.

The men separated, leaving me in front. My bosses standing behind me, I knocked on the front door and rang the bell.

Nothing happened. Minutes went by.

I knocked again. Aya checked his watch. He still wore a watch, and not just one of those wrist computers/cell phones. Checking it was ingrained. Rick stared at the security camera, his long white hair catching in the misty breeze. He tilted his head and said, "Someone's coming."

Rick LaFleur was a black wereleopard. There were indications he had sharper senses even in human form and they got sharper closer to the full moon. Were-creatures also got skittish at that time of the month and, while we waited, I counted ahead to the three days when the were-members of PsyLED Eighteen would go furry. I'd rather not have to deal with Rick's big-cat on Ming's property, and I was safe on that point.

The door opened. Standing inside should have been the butler. Instead it was Cai, Ming's human primo, her number one blood-servant, but a vastly different Cai from the last time I saw him. Cai was slim, wiry, Asian, and skilled in several martial arts forms. He moved with that liquid grace of the well-trained fighter, and had all the charm of a steel blade. He did everything for Ming, from keeping her schedule to supposedly killing vampires who got out of line. That was hearsay, but had seemed likely. Until tonight.

Tonight he was grinning. A happy human grin, like a maybe-a-little-drunk kind of grin. And there was blood on his cheek and the neckline of his white T-shirt. "Ming's guests." He threw his arms to the sides in welcome. "Come in come in come in," he said, running the words together. "Ming is . . ." He gestured off into the darkness of the house, turned, and walked away, leaving the door open and three law enforcement agents standing there.

"Is that an invitation?" I asked.

"We assume so," Aya said, stepping past me, moving right, his weapon suddenly in his hand.

"Though we don't know what the invitation is for," Rick finished for him, stepping inside, to the left, his weapon also drawn.

Right. It might be an invitation for me to be supper to the vampires.

"This is the same kind of behavior we saw in New Orleans among many of the blood-servants, and Ming's people have no reason to still be celebrating so long after the coronation of the emperor," Aya said softly.

I drew my weapon but didn't chamber a round. I should. But I didn't. Somehow this didn't feel like an ambush. Which, of course, would make it a really good ambush. I pressed a light switch on the wall and the foyer brightened.

"I don't see a DB," I said, looking around. "No blood spatter on walls or floor. No stink of decay on the air. But Cai did have blood on his shirt."

Patterns at my feet drew my eye. The foyer had been refloored in white marble. In the center, tiny pieces of gray marble, brass, and glistening steel had been inlaid and formed a pair of blades, the sharp steel blades crossed. The single-edged blades themselves had been embedded in the floor; they appeared real but were strangely shaped. One blade looked as if an ax had been crossed with a machete and then a dragon had taken a bite out of the sharp edge. I knew nothing about fighting with blades, but even I could tell the dragon-bitten section was for snagging an opponent's blade out of their hand. The other blade was similar but without the snagging-dragon-bite, and a longer cutting edge. They were different but they were also clearly a pair of blades intended to be used together. The ends of the blades, where they should have attached to real handles-hilts?-were made of brass or gold and were shaped like dragon snouts, as if the steel was erupting from their mouths. Above and between the crossed blades was a green, faceted square.

"Ingram," FireWind snapped. There was an edge of "pay attention" in the tone.

"What's that?" I pointed at the floor.

"Ming's new crest," FireWind said, his tone still sharp. "Since she became MOC."

As if my up-line boss hadn't just snapped at me, I holstered my weapon and started taking pictures, sending them back to HQ. Aya grunted in approval. I was learning how to read him. I flipped on more lights and took shots of the parlor to the left and the hallways leading off into darkness. According to county records, the clan home of the Master of the City was nearly twelve thousand square feet, so I wasn't getting much of the house, but it was the first time I'd been in a position to film it.

As I worked, Rick explained to me, still a newbie, "It's customary for the Master of the City, the most powerful Mithran in the territory, to have their crest inlaid in the entry floor of the city's Council Chambers headquarters, to remind friends and visiting enemies alike who they would have to fight and conquer. Ming is both the MOC and head of the only vampire clan in Knoxville, so her home does double duty."

Ming had been given MOC status by Jane Yellowrock. I remembered that. When I had taken photos of everything I could without wandering around, I pulled the psy-meter from my pocket and quickly took a reading of Ming's foyer. The readings were all over the place.

At a warning signal from Rick, I slid the device away.

Cai wandered toward us from the main sitting room. "You're still here?"

"Ming demanded to see me," I said. "She said she had a body for me. Get her. Please."

"Oh. Sure. Sit sit sit sit." He waved to the sitting room. Then he said, "No. Wait. Tea. I should make tea. Come come come come. This way."

I looked at FireWind, who had a faint smile on his face and gestured I should take point. Cai led the way to the kitchen, which was decorated in black and white with emerald touches here and there. Two six-burner stoves, each with three ovens, and the commercial refrigerator and commercial freezer made my heart thump hard with envy. This was a bakers-canners-chefs' paradise. It would make the Nicholson mamas at God's Cloud of Glory Church turn green.

Cai put on a kettle and got out a fancy tea tin and six cups with saucers. He started humming, something that sounded like a dirge, then suddenly he was whistling what sounded like the music for the old Gilligan's Island TV series.

I looked at the bosses. Both were trying not to appear amused but not doing a good job of it. I wasn't amused. Things felt wrong here. As the water heated, Cai wandered along the counter and out the door at the far end.

"What in God's good heaven is happening?" I asked, my voice soft.

No one replied, but Rick and Aya began to open cabinet doors and drawers and I realized they were conducting a search. For which we didn't have a subpoena. Aya pulled a bottle from a small refrigerator and spun it slowly. "Nineteen forty-seven Cheval Blanc. A bottle sold at auction for over three hundred thousand dollars recently."

A bottle of wine? That bottle was worth more than I owned altogether in the whole world.

Rick opened the commercial refrigerator and said, "The blood-servants are eating well. Whole suckling pig, baby potatoes, and asparagus." He shut the door.

Feeling emboldened, I checked out the stoves and the ovens. They were not just functional, they were works of art, and I ran my hands across the decorative steel corners. The stoves had to cost a fortune, but vampires were often quite rich.

I turned off the kettle, which was steaming, but I didn't make tea. I wanted to read this place, which meant I needed something made of wood that had been here a long time. The floors were marble tile; the cabinets looked new and were painted black inside and out.

Aya closed a second wine fridge and opened a huge pantry. Now I had pantry envy. And it had wood floors.

I held up a hand to let him know I was about to go to work. Walking past him, I slipped off one shoe and placed my bare foot on the wood floor.

Cold and ice met my questing energies. I pushed through, to the underside of the wood planks, and then to the wood supports beneath. Wood, unless petrified, always had a form of power that I could read. Here there was nothing. The wood that constructed this house was truly dead. It no longer had energy, no longer had a . . . a soul, for lack of a better word. I slid my shoe on, stepped back into the main kitchen, and made hard eye contact with each man, trying to communicate, Problem. Magical problem.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

#Revew - The Games of Enemies and Allies by K.M. Shea #Paranormal #Fantasy

 Magic on Main Street # 2
Format: Kindle, 372 pages
Release Date: January 12, 2024
Publisher: K.M. Shea
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

At night they’re enemies. During the day they’re friends. Only one of them is aware of this…

My stress levels skyrocketed after I discovered the deadly vampire who has taken over downtown is Considine Maledictus, one of the most powerful vampires alive.

Now I’m even more reluctant to tangle with him, but he’s started showing up in the middle of my investigations, even if they’re outside his territory. I never know if he’s there to fight or to lend me some unexpected help.

I don’t have time to ponder his weird behavior, because a group of local wizards are up to some shady practices. They’ve never been fond of the non-magical, but suddenly they’re popping up all over the city, “helping” humans.

At least I can count on my vampire friend and next-door neighbor, Connor, for some laughs. Except…he’s been acting strange and is even more touchy-feely than usual these days.

Regardless, I’m going to stay focused on protecting my city. I’m just not sure if I should be more concerned about the wizards, or the chaotic vampire who swaps from friend to foe on a nightly basis.

The Games of Enemies and Allies is the second book in the Magic on Main Street urban fantasy trilogy and is part of the Magiford Supernatural City world. This series is packed with humor, magical fights, and a sweet, slow-burn romance between a slayer who battles social anxiety and a vampire who is sick of his immortality. Key Characters: Jade O'Neil and Considine Maledictus. Setting: The fictional city of Magiford where humans and supernaturals share a city.
Jade works for the Magical Response Task Force which is part of the Department of Supernatural Law Enforcement. She is a vampire slayer who has left the comfort of her family of vampire slayers to move to Magiford to choose a career in protection rather than killing. Now, she works with a revolving group of supernaturals (Curia Cloisters) who call her Blood, while ensuring that supernaturals stay in their lane and don't try to cause problems like the Fae, Orrin. She's even become a team leader in her short time. 
Jade has made friends with a vampire named Connor who lives in her same building. Jade has also made her very own nemesis in Ruin aka Considine who loves to push her buttons by showing up whenever there's trouble. Considine, meanwhile, is an elder vampire who has accepted the responsibility of his friend, Ambrose Drake's family, which includes Killian Drake. Killian has tried hard to find out what Considine is doing in town but to no avail. Considine is really good at not letting anyone know where he is, or when he is stalking them in a game of cat and mouse.
In this installment, the game is afoot, as it were. House Tellier seems to be up to something, and Jade is eager to prove they are out of line. First, it was fireworks, then it was saving a library where they donated a statue, and finally, it's making it appear as though they were saving humans on an icy bridge. To make matters even more twisted, Jade seems to be the target of a dangerous dragon shifter named Gisila. She seems most interested in something that is kept at Tutu's Crypta and Custodie, and Jade has been close to exposing her secrets. 
Jade, who is really shy when it comes to intermingling with people, seems to be trying to break the ice with her teammates. The most curious aspect is that she is always given the most interesting people to be part of her Team Blood. The other curiosity in this book is when Jade finally learns who Considine is, and how far Considine goes to protect her from danger when she is hunted by rogue elements and the dragon shifter. Jade, who always wears a mask at work so nobody knows who she is, may have some issues after this story.
So, after careful research, I have learned that this is a mini-trilogy as part of a larger series that is set in a world where humans live more or less with supernaturals. While this story has plenty of action and suspense, there is also plenty of humor among Jade's co-workers, including Sunshine. Lastly, there is a character named Hazel who is Killian's One. Apparently, Hazel is the one who keeps the appropriate parties on their toes. Especially House Tellier. Hazel is from the author's Hall of Blood and Mercy series. 

Monday, February 26, 2024

#Review - Ghost Island by Max Seeck #Mystery #Occult

 Jessica Niemi # 4
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Release Date: February 27, 2024
Publisher: Berkley
Source: Publisher
Genre: Mystery / Occult

On a secluded island, homicide detective Jessica Niemi must investigate a drowning that is tied to a frightening ghostly legend in this riveting new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of THE WITCH HUNTER.

Jessica Niemi is put on leave after a violent altercation between her and a belligerent man makes headlines. To escape the unwanted scrutiny, Jessica travels to a remote island in the Åland archipelago and rents a room at a small seaside inn. She is hoping to be left alone as she faces the possibility that she is losing what is left of her sanity but three elderly visitors have arrived at the inn for their yearly sojourn. Jessica learns that they are the remaining ‘birds of spring’, former refugees who fled Finland as children during World War II and lived together for a few months in an orphanage on the island.

The orphanage no longer exists but the local legend about one of its inhabitants, a girl named Maija, still haunts the surviving orphans. Every evening Maija would put on her blue coat and stand on the pier, looking out at the dark water until one night, she disappeared and was never seen again. When one of the ‘birds of spring’ is found dead, drowned alongside the same pier, and Jessica learns about two other deaths from the past, also connected to the orphanage, she has no choice but to try and put the pieces of this terrifying mystery together.

Jessica can’t be sure whether she’s facing a killer or—just like the legend says—the ghost of Maija, the girl in the blue coat. Uncertain what is real and what is not, Jessica desperately searches for answers that she hopes will stop the murders and finally silence her own demons once and for all…

Ghost Island, by Max Seeck, is the fourth installment in the author's Jessica Niemi series. Or, as certain outlets are calling it, A Ghost of the Past novel. This story alternates between the year 2020, and the year 1946. Helsinki Violent Crimes Detective Sergeant Jessica Niemi is haunted by her dark past and the scars left by a coven of witches that nearly destroyed her. Jessica has faced not only a murderous cult but also human trafficking and the assassination of a government official.

Even though she is one of the lead Detectives in her unit, and has the record to back up her experience, she is having issues with dissociating what is real, and what is not. After a violent altercation between her and a belligerent man makes headlines, her boss Helena Lappi, who despises Jessica, orders her to take off until an investigation can be completed to see if Jessica's actions were warranted or not. To escape the unwanted scrutiny, Jessica travels to a remote island in the Åland archipelago and rents a room at a small seaside inn. 

She is hoping to be left alone as she faces the possibility that she is losing what is left of her sanity and likely her job as well as something she never expected. When three elderly visitors arrive at the inn for their yearly sojourn, Jessica learns that they are the remaining ‘birds of spring’, former refugees who fled Finland as children during World War II and lived together for a few months in an orphanage on the island. The orphanage no longer exists but the local legend about one of its inhabitants, a girl named Maija, still haunts the surviving orphans. 

Every evening Maija would put on her blue coat and stand on the pier, looking out at the dark water hoping that her father would come and bring her home. The parents never arrived because their ship sank. Then one night, she disappeared and was never seen again. When one of the ‘birds of spring’ is found dead, drowned alongside the same pier, and Jessica learns about two other deaths from the past, also connected to the orphanage, she has no choice but to try and put the pieces of this terrifying mystery together. 

*Thoughts* The story is told in two-time levels, so in flashbacks, you learn a lot about life in the orphanage, which was not always unproblematic, and also about the fates of the individual children. In this book, everyone is a suspect. Even Jessica. Dead bodies have a tendency to appear whenever she's around. Jessica's co-workers like Yusuf play minium parts in this story since they are afraid that they will become the next target of Helena's wrath. With the surprise the author reveals in the middle of this mystery, I find it hard to believe that there will be another installment in this series.  



The hum is so soft that it isn't really disturbing. Even so, Jessica can't help but notice it.

The other woman is waiting for her to speak, has been for almost a minute now. The thought in Jessica's head is unusually clear, but uttering it requires effort.

"I guess I'm trying to say . . . I'd anchored my life in another person's presence," she begins, and is caught off guard by the confident note in her voice. "Saw it from someone else's perspective. Does that make any sense?"

The woman sitting across from Jessica in a beige armchair doesn't immediately respond, uses the silence to encourage Jessica to continue thinking out loud. She is skilled at leading; the session seems to be progressing according to a predetermined choreography instead of there being two equals sitting there in armchairs, conversing without an agenda. Everything is clinical and coordinated, but Jessica doesn't let it bother her. She knew what she was getting into when she started her psychotherapy sessions a month ago.

"Before I met Erne . . . I was lost. I didn't understand it at the time . . . And now-"

Suddenly Jessica's voice thickens as if she is forbidden from continuing. As if someone else is forbidding her.

The therapist doesn't rush Jessica; she sits in her seat, adjusts her grip on her ballpoint pen. Retracts the tip, then clicks it back out. Under some circumstances, the intermittently repeated mannerism would make a restless impression, but the psychiatrist repeats it in a controlled fashion.

Jessica looks at the woman's angular knuckles and light blue fingernails. They're surprisingly glossy, and for this reason it is somehow brazen for them to be the fingernails of a doctor specializing in psychiatry: a client opening up her heart might have the right to expect something more conservative. More empathetic. Something that shows her therapist isn't above the situation.


Jessica looks up at her therapist's face. "What?"

There's a break in her train of thought; perhaps her brain was trying to scan for visual stimuli as an excuse for her to stop talking.

A tender look creeps across the therapist's suntanned face. "Please go on. You were saying that you were lost, and now . . ."

It takes Jessica a moment to reorder her thoughts. She doesn't actually want to reveal her insight to this woman-or to anyone else, for that matter-but at the same time she is burning with a desire to hear the conclusion articulated out loud, to let the words spill out for a professional to assess. She wants to know whether her demons are capable of dodging the psychiatrist's sharp eye, of hiding skillfully, or might they nakedly expose themselves as a result of this sudden insight?

"I guess I've never really liked my life. Or myself, actually. Then suddenly there was someone who admired me in his own way. Loved me. The way a father loves a daughter. And it gave life meaning." Jessica sits there listening to the words she just uttered, as if they echoed in the emptiness. And suddenly she is overcome with shame. "I'm not totally sure whether this is about losing Erne Or about losing a perspective that was important to me. About the fact that I didn't just love Erne. More like I loved myself the way he saw me," she continues, despite her rational mind's insistence that she stop.

The psychiatrist lowers her notepad to the armrest and presses her fingertips together.

She looks serious.

"I think we are possibly now on the cusp of something major."

Jessica cannot help but hear the massive cliché in this sentiment. Is this supposed to be the breakthrough they're always talking about on TV series?

"But . . . ?" she asks.

The therapist smiles, as if to reward Jessica for her insightful question. "But at the same time, I'm a little worried."

Jessica shakes her head because she isn't totally sure what the other woman is referring to. Not totally, although she has an enlightened guess.

"Do you feel as if your life hasn't had a purpose since Erne died?" the therapist asks, raising her head slightly. "Did that die along with Erne?"

Jessica looks at the other woman, whose face looks concerned. Perhaps it's purely professional concern, but it's concern nonetheless.

And when Jessica doesn't respond, the other woman continues: "Do you feel like at some point in your life you began to live for Erne alone?"

Jessica frowns; a rising nausea sears her throat. She reaches for her glass, takes a swig of room-temperature water, and turns toward the window. The leafless branches of the large oak sway in the wind; they crook like bony fingers stripped of flesh. The ceiling lights dim, casting the room in gloom. The hum grows louder, as if the electromagnetic potential in it is increasing.

"It's typical for people to want to please others, for instance their parents, and when the people on whose behalf we have made these efforts-which at times are in profound conflict with our own self-image-depart from our lives for good . . . the death can leave an enormous void. This void entails not only longing but also meaninglessness. The person no longer knows how to or even if they want to live solely for themselves. Am I on the right track?"

Jessica doesn't reply. She watches the branches that continue to dance outside, sees them penetrate the room through the seams of the white window frames without shattering the panes of glass. They slither across the floor and wrap around her ankles like gleaming black snakes. Gradually they tighten their grip, probe warily. "Because if that's the situation we're dealing with," the therapist says, "we need to approach it with the requisite seriousness."

Jessica blinks several times, and the lighting in the room returns to normal.

The snakes retreat, withdraw to the other side of the window frame, and freeze into trees again, as if in reverse entropy. For a moment, the yellow light in the room feels blinding.

The psychiatrist reaches for her pad and starts making notes. Jessica sees the woman's wrist move the pen but isn't sure what she's writing. Has she just jotted down the words "depressed" and possibly "self-destructive" in her leather-bound book? That would be a pretty apt description of Jessica's state, which means the headshrinker has earned her hourly fee, she supposes.

"Who does?" Jessica says, lowering her glass to the table. The nausea has overtaken her entire body; her stomach is roiling and her esophagus is burning. She has the urge to dash into the bathroom to vomit, but she restrains herself, swallows a few times.

"What do you mean?"

"You said we have to approach it seriously."

"You and I," the therapist clarifies, and adjusts her thin-framed glasses. "We've gone over a lot of things this past month and made some important observations, but today is the first time I've heard something we absolutely must address. I'd call it a hopelessness of sorts. It's important to pull ourselves out of such mental states, even if it's not necessarily easy."

Out in the freezing air, the branches stop moving until a powerful, howling gust brings them back to life. This time they don't cause Jessica to lose her focus.

"Tuula?" Jessica says, hearing how strange the name sounds when spoken out loud. It's probably the first time over the course of their brief patient-therapist relationship that Jessica has called the psychiatrist by her first name.


"Over the last couple years alone I've investigated a dozen manslaughters or murders . . ." Jessica chuckles without smiling. "When you break through a brick wall and find a beautiful young woman inside . . . or see a man who has been stoned to death, his bashed-in skull covered by a still-bloody headful of hair . . . or when you smell the flesh of someone who's been burned alive . . . which in turn makes you think that somewhere in the world dogs are cooked alive, because the adrenaline produced by the terror and pain makes the meat tender . . ."

The psychiatrist looks ill at ease and would presumably like to ask Jessica to stop in order for her to define clearer boundaries for their conversations, but she cannot interrupt her patient, not now that Jessica is giving more of herself than ever before.

"Do you understand what I'm getting at?" Jessica says, then continues before the psychiatrist has time to react: "I've never had any hope. None of us do. But in the past I guess I knew how to deal with it better. I'd accepted the meaninglessness of my own existence."

The psychiatrist shuts her notebook and presses it into her lap, under her palms. "Jessica. We need to consider the alternative that-"

A wave of nausea washes over Jessica's body, and she springs out of the chair in the middle of the psychiatrist's sentence. The nausea that began on her way here has been churning inside her for the entire session and is growing less bearable with every passing instant.

"I have to go."

"But it's only half past," the psychiatrist says in confusion, craning her neck to see the wall clock behind Jessica.

"Sorry. I'll pay for the full hour."

"That's not what I-"

"Thank you, Tuula."

The other woman looks dumbfounded but quickly pulls herself together: "Shall we book the next session?"

Jessica doesn't reply. The branches of the oak tree scratch the window, and she shoots them a quick glance.

I don't think we're going to be seeing each other again. Good-bye.


Over the wail of the wind, Jessica hears the heavy wooden door shut behind her. The sky beyond the apartment buildings peering over Kruunuvuorenkatu is a pale gray. The wet rails splitting the narrow street carry the clank of the approaching streetcar.

Watery snowflakes glue themselves to Jessica's face as she adjusts her scarf to cover her cheeks. The vomit rising from her throat compels her to lower her head. She tries to draw in fresh air through her nostrils, hopes this will deter the swelling nausea, but the cold wind only intensifies the burn she's been feeling in her nose since sitting down in the psychiatrist's armchair.

Jessica knows she won't make it home. She glances at the building portico; the ornamental iron gate is open. There's not a soul in the long, vaulted passage leading to the inner courtyard. The courtyard is her only hope; she won't make it any farther than that. Jessica takes a few unsteady steps, passes through the gate, and is glancing back a final time when the stomach acid gushes up and out of her esophagus and splatters to the asphalt.

She wipes her mouth, bends over, and retches again.

Out on the street, the streetcar clatters past. Jessica swears to herself, raises her head, and gives herself a minute. She hawks up the dregs of vomit from her throat and spits the bile-saturated clumps to the ground.

Then she hears squelching footfalls carrying from the courtyard. Someone's coming.

She quickly pulls herself up to standing and leans with her hand against the wall, but the bearded man in the neon yellow safety coveralls who has trudged out from behind the rug-beating rack has already seen too much.

"What's going on here?" he asks, standing at a safe distance with his hands on his hips. There's no concern in his voice, more rebuke: he's like a teacher who has just ambushed ninth graders at their smoking spot.

"What does it look like?" Jessica says, wiping her mouth on her coat sleeve.

"How dare you?"

"Sorry. But it's not like I asked to feel sick."

The man sneers in disgust; his face darkens. "Do you even live here?" he says, grabbing a snow shovel leaning against the building. "I don't remember ever having seen-"

Jessica doesn't answer, just turns to continue on her way.

"Hey, answer me! Are you drunk? You're going to clean up after yourself, damn it!"

Jessica pauses at the iron gate and looks back. She doesn't have any reason to behave threateningly; just the opposite: she should act in accordance with her values, apologize and explain that she simply isn't feeling well. That's the truth, after all. She would, of course, pay for the cleaning, including an extra fee for the repulsiveness of the task, if doing so would get this courtyard tyrant guarding his little kingdom to calm down.

"You're fucking drunk," he says, looking Jessica up and down.

But the building super-judging by his eagerness to call Jessica to account, that's who he must be-has through his own behavior laid a weak foundation for this encounter's dynamics.

"What if I were?" Jessica says.

The man laughs. The mouth between the pockmarked cheeks turns up in a gleeful smirk. "You can be as drunk as you want, but you're not going to make a mess of my yard, goddamn it."

"I'm sorry. I don't feel well," Jessica says, and is about to continue on her way again.

But the man won't relent. "Hey, little miss," he says, his voice a meter closer than it was before.

Little miss. Something inside Jessica blazes up.

She turns around to feel the man's thick fingers clenching her wrist.

"Let go," Jessica says quietly, but the fingers' grip just tightens.

The man brings his face closer, as if sniffing for alcohol on Jessica's breath. Apparently he's not a germophobe, considering she just puked. The jeering smile oozes with a condescending lust Jessica learned to identify long ago but would never learn to tolerate.

"Let go," Jessica says, trying to yank her arm free.

The man shakes his head and raises the shovel. "You're not going anywhere until you've cleaned up this mess. Or should I call the police?"

"Let go of me."

The man tightens his grip. Of course Jessica could tell him she's a police officer herself; an ID confirming the matter is in her wallet. But she doesn't want this guy to know any more about her than necessary. His eyes bore deeply into Jessica's, which are no doubt red after many sleepless nights. He probably thinks she's some sort of street trash, and Jessica's old sneakers, gray sweats, and black lived-in parka don't help matters.

"Goddamn junkie whore. I know your type . . . ," he says, and for a few silent moments something ignites in his eyes: maybe it's the sensation of power; maybe it's the titillation of the unexpected encounter and the situation. Maybe it's a desire to punish, to give a drunk girl some fatherly discipline. Jessica tastes the vomit in her mouth, takes in the fifty-year-old man's fat cheeks and coarse stubble. The jubilant look on his face.