Authors: Diana Rowland
“What a mess,” I breathed as I took in the sight of the damaged mansion. Once again, I didn’t have to pretend to be seeing it for the first time. The mansion had been ablaze last time I was here, courtesy of Mzatal and lightning, and before that I’d only seen the side that faced the lawn and the pond. Was it even a pond anymore? Most of the water had boiled away when Mzatal grounded his power. It would probably take several months of Louisiana rainstorms to fully restore it.
Pellini parked in the visitors lot and killed the engine. A weird quiet enveloped us as we exited the car, and the closing of the doors echoed like gunshots. The valve thrummed in my arcane senses, low and insistent, like music with a heavy bass playing several blocks away.
I meandered in the vague direction of the back of the mansion, and Pellini followed a few seconds later. The once luscious lawn with its copious flowers and ornamental trees lay in ruin—plants trampled, crushed, and strewn with rubble. Yellow crime scene tape bounded large swaths, and an odd, fresh ozone scent lingered over a more earthy foundation of mud and charred wood. Potency arced like violet lightning between chunks of debris. Steam rose from the pond basin, and the mud boiled in slow bubbles near the center. Several agents moved among the outbuildings but none gave us more than a passing glance.
“Anything jumping out?” Pellini asked, cutting into my musings. I glanced his way to see him watching me.
Oh, right, I’m supposed to be helping him find a link between what happened here and his murder victim.
In fact, there were plenty of links, but none I’d be stumbling over on the lawn, nor any I chose to share with him.
“It’s not like I get weird vibrations or anything, y’know,” I lied with what I hoped was the right combination of sincerity and tartness. Pellini didn’t need to know about my arcane skills. I started to add that I wasn’t a clairvoyant like Marco Knight but clamped down on it. I had no idea whether Marco’s talent was simple clairvoyance or an ability far more complex.
I continued to wander in aimless fashion while Pellini dogged me several steps behind. Ahead of us lay the shattered remains of the gazebo—with the valve node at its center. Broken columns rose from the edge of the raised stone platform. A pillar of potency flashed in the center, oscillating from brilliant peacock to deepest midnight blue.
“Looks like a bomb went off there,” I remarked as I headed toward it. In othersight, residual potency drifted like fragile luminescent tumbleweeds.
“The reports agree that there was an explosion centered at the gazebo,” Pellini said.
His eyes remained on me as I cautiously stepped through the residue and to the center.
He won’t have any idea what I’m doing
. To anyone without the ability to see the arcane it would appear as if I was idly flexing my hands. Keeping my back to him, I went to one knee and pretended to peer at the cracked and crazed marble at the center of the gazebo floor. To my immense relief there was no sign of instability or fraying within the node. Damn good thing since it would be nightmarishly difficult to get Idris out here to fix it. For security, I retraced the barricade seal, and Kadir’s implanted training rose to guide my movements. The intricate barricade comprised of Kadir-style sigils prevented the node from being used by the demonic lords as a passageway to Earth.
Energy flared as I completed the final sigil, and I jerked aside to avoid the burst. I shot a look behind me only to see it head straight toward Pellini like a flickering golden basketball. A warning shout rose in my throat, but I swallowed it back. The arcane burst wouldn’t
him. At most he might experience a few seconds of discomfort, like a stabbing headache or a sudden deep chill.
Yet, as the flare reached him, Pellini casually brushed it aside with one hand as if waving away a fly.
He just moved that potency!
I mentally screeched. No, surely I’d misinterpreted a coincidental movement, or my eyes were playing tricks on me. No way had Pellini—
of all people—swished arcane power aside. Physically manipulate errant potency? I sure couldn’t do that. I had to rely on tracings and sigils to guide and shape power into the needed form.
What the hell was I supposed to do with Pellini now? Confront him?
Yo, dude, I happened to notice you got you some arcane skillz there. Wassup wit dat?
I’d worked with the guy for years and never seen any hint that he was anything but mundane. Then again, I’d managed to hide my own weirdness for a long time.
No, confronting him wasn’t the right move. Not yet at least. Pellini didn’t know I’d seen him flick the potency away, which meant I had time to come up with a brilliant idea for how to handle the situation. It seemed outrageous, but I had to consider the possibility that Pellini was working for Katashi and his crew. Had he seen me reinforcing the node barricade? I’d blocked his view as much as possible, but he still might have seen me tracing sigils.
Maybe Pellini wasn’t aware of what he’d done?
But how was he able to do it at all? M
ost people with any sort of arcane talent developed it during or immediately after puberty. How could a guy in his mid-forties suddenly come up with those kind of skills? Then again, maybe the not-long-after-puberty rule was yet another of my many erroneous beliefs.
“What did you find?” he asked.
Standing, I dusted off my hands and gave a super-casual shrug. “Nothing of interest. Stone’s cracked all the way through, that’s all.”
And you batted potency away!
I turned a circle in pretense of investigating. “There’s nothing out here. Maybe the house has something that might connect to your case?” Anything to divert his attention from the node.
An unsuccessful effort, as it turned out. Pellini’s gaze remained heavy on me, mouth pursed in an expression I’d seen him use on suspects who were feeding him a line of bullshit. “Maybe,” he finally said. He looked toward the center of the gazebo. “But I have a feeling there’s more to be found here.”
Crap. Good guy or bad guy, I didn’t want him anywhere near the node. No way would I have brought him this close if I’d known about his potential talent.
with a text message, and I silently thanked the universe for the brief reprieve. Pellini read the text then scowled in either frustration or disappointment. “Boudreaux’s at the gate and needs to see me now.”
“No problem,” I replied, being very understanding and accommodating of whatever would get us the fuck away from this spot.
Pellini remained silent as we returned up the long driveway. When we neared the gate I could see Boudreaux pacing in front of his car and smoking a cigarette with sharp, quick motions.
After exiting the gate, Pellini parked next to the agent’s Crown Vic, then signed out on the crime scene log before heading over to his partner. Boudreaux’s gaze snapped to me as I got out of the car. His face flushed red, and his hand tightened on a paper he clutched. I offered him a light smile then pointedly looked away and walked over to the agent. I refused to get worked up over Boudreaux’s open hostility, especially considering that he’d never been remotely friendly with me in the past.
“You must be bored out of your mind with this,” I said to Agent Square Jaw as I took the scene log.
His stern expression melted into a friendly smile. “Gives me plenty of time to study,” he said and waved a hand toward a stack of textbooks on the front seat of his vehicle with titles like
Mock Trial Case Files and Problems
Question and Answers: Torts
. His phone buzzed, and he murmured an apology before turning to answer it.
Clipboard in hand, I signed out, then paused at the sight of Ryan’s name near the top of the page—signing in this morning at 1003 hours and out at 1034.
After a glance to make sure the agent was still on his phone, I flipped through the old pages. Agent Ryan Kristoff had been at the plantation every day since the investigation began and, with the exception of today, for anywhere from three to eight hours.
Which, of course, signified absolutely nothing. After all, there was a shitload to go through on a very large plantation. I handed the clipboard to Agent Square-Jawed Law Student and strolled back to Pellini’s car, glancing at him and Boudreaux in time to see the latter again glare daggers at me. I returned a bland look.
Boudreaux shoved the piece of paper at Pellini. “Why is she here?” he snarled, gesturing my way with a sharp slash of his hand. Without waiting for an answer, he reached through his car window to grab a folder then stormed toward me, teeth bared.
I instinctively shifted into a defensive stance. This was way more than his usual Kara-you-suck attitude.
did you have to do with all of this?” he demanded and swept his arm up to indicate the plantation. “What did you
Son of a bitch.
“Back off, asshole,” I shot back. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Boudreaux flipped open the folder to reveal an enlarged copy of the photo Pellini had shown me in the restaurant. “That!” He jabbed a finger at blurry me behind McDunn. “You were
not three feet from Mr. Farouche.”
I scoffed. “Seriously? That’s not me dude.” Admit nothing, deny everything. “Don’t know who it is, but just because I’m kinda female-shaped doesn’t mean I’m every female.”
His expression hardened as he pulled a sheet from beneath the photo and slapped it on top. “Fuck. You.”
Fuck me is right
. It was a computer-aided police artist sketch of a woman who looked an awful lot like one Kara Gillian. I fought to channel my shock and dismay into a wrongfully accused and pissed reaction.
Boudreaux shook the folder at me. “That’s a little more clear than ‘kinda female shaped.’” Anger sharpened his tone. “
I pygahed then lowered my voice. “Boudreaux, it’s not me,” I said, calm and insistent. “I don’t know what’s going on here.”
The fury in his eyes faded into desperation. “Gillian . . . just tell me what happened.” His words resonated with pain and confusion. His need for information had nothing to do with making an arrest and everything to do with finding closure for his own grief.
Farouche had been responsible for a host of evil acts, but he’d clearly been very important to Boudreaux. An ache of sympathy bloomed in my chest. If I came clean to him right now there was every chance he wouldn’t pursue it any further. Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave it to chance. Too many other lives were at stake.
His eyes went flat as he slapped the folder shut. He knew I was holding back. “You’re done,” he said through clenched teeth, then strode back to his car and drove off.
Pellini ambled my way. “What’s up with that?” His tone stayed mild, but he watched my every reaction.
I let annoyance creep into my voice. “What’s up with what? A sketch of a woman who he’s decided is me?” I shook my head. “He’s never liked me, and I’m an easy target for his anger.”
Pellini regarded me in silence. “Yeah. That must be it,” he finally said, sounding utterly unconvinced. “I’ve had enough of this place. Nothing here for me. You ready to roll?”
• • •
Pellini kept the radio on for the drive back which once again saved us from awkward silence. It remained plenty awkward as we sat there not talking, but Pink Floyd was singing about being comfortably numb which at least saved us from the silence part. I wasn’t bored, though. I spent the majority of the drive going over options regarding Pellini and the shocking way he’d batted that potency aside.
I’d worked with Pellini for years and hardly knew the guy. What I needed was a chance to determine whether or not he possessed any sort of arcane skill. It still seemed ludicrous—after all, this was
—but it would be the height of stupidity to not check everything out.
My thoughts continued to churn in a messy useless sludge, and when we pulled into the PD parking lot I was no closer to a defined course of action.
Pellini cleared his throat as he parked. “I, uh, know the plantation was a bust, but maybe we could get together for a beer later today, and I could pick your brain about other possible connections to my case?”
And, like that, a solution emerged. “I’ll do you one better,” I said brightly. “You can come over to my house tonight. Say around seven? A couple of friends are staying with me for a few days, and we’re going to grill up hamburgers and ribs. You’re welcome to join us, and after we eat you and I can discuss the case.”
Tension melted away from him, and he smiled. Not a nasty smile, either. “Seven. Yeah. I can totally do that. I’ll bring the beer.”
And I’ll bring the demon.
As soon as I had the AC going in my car I called Idris and Bryce and gave them a quick recap of what happened with Pellini. Idris made a few interesting strangled noises when I described how Pellini batted potency away but agreed that my barbecue idea was a good one since further assessment was clearly needed.
“How’s the Malibu running?” I asked.
Idris made a rude sound. “Like a one-legged gazelle. Bryce says he’ll work on it more this afternoon.”
“Good,” I said. “He needs a hobby.”
I hung up with them, and my phone immediately dinged with a text from Tessa:
I smiled. Short, sweet, and to the point—just like my aunt. Well, mostly like her. The sweet part was debatable.
Yep, she knew how to get my attention. Presents
• • •
A crew of orange-vested city workers had part of Tessa’s street torn up, though I couldn’t tell if it was for a drainage project or road repair. Either way, it obviously required a bunch of sweaty men to stand around and peer thoughtfully into one of several six-foot-wide holes in the street. At long last I navigated the slalom course of orange cones to Tessa’s house, trotted up the steps and knocked on the door.
My aunt opened it a few seconds later, smiling brightly. “Kara!”
“Welcome back!” I said as I pulled her into a hug. Petite, bordering on tiny, she made up for her lack of height with an iron will and a wild fashion sense. Her current outfit was a symphony of pink and black—light pink sandals, black mini-skirt, dark pink belt, medium-pink blouse over a black tank top. Even her frizzy blond hair bore a pink streak on one side.
She gave me a squeeze before releasing me. “Not for long!” she said with a laugh then pulled me in and closed the door. “We’re heading out again as soon as I get a call back from Melanie about staffing at the store.”
“Carl can get that much time off?” I asked.
Tessa blinked, shook her head. “Carl? Goodness, no.” She headed down the hall toward the kitchen. “I’d never be able to drag him away for this long.”
An unpleasant feeling crept in, as if I was seeing a math error where I’d made a mistake in the first step. I followed my aunt as pieces of information coalesced into a new picture.
She’d said she was going to Aspen with the old man. She’d never actually said she was going with
I’d simply made that assumption since he was her boyfriend.
“Who are you going with?” I asked. A chill snaked through me as the answer took shape.
“Isumo,” Tessa said in a
Who else would it be?
tone as she stepped into the kitchen.
Isumo Katashi. He was there, sitting at the counter in the kitchen with a steaming cup of tea before him. He regarded me with keen eyes then inclined his head and offered me a thin smile.
I stopped dead in my tracks. “You son of a bitch.”
Tessa whirled to face me. “Kara Gillian! Master Katashi is a guest under my roof. I know you have your differences, but I will not tolerate such rudeness.”
“Differences?” My hands clenched. “He
Idr . . . a friend’s sister!”
Tessa lifted her chin. “There’s a lot going on right now, and facts get skewed easily. I don’t expect you to agree, but I do expect you both to remain civil while in this house.”
“I did not murder her,” Katashi said, voice even and mild. He lifted his cup and took a careful sip.
“You fucking well were a part of it,” I snarled. “Aunt Tessa, I know what this man is capable of.” My chest tightened. “I love you, and you can’t expect me to
be concerned for your safety and well-being when you’re with him.”
To my dismay, Tessa moved to stand beside Katashi. “Kara,” she said, voice abruptly gentle. “Sweetling. This is one of the reasons I asked you to come over. With all the craziness of the past couple of years, there’ve been a lot of misunderstandings, and I haven’t always set things straight when I should have.” She placed a hand on Katashi’s shoulder. “The fact is, I’ve been with Isumo for over thirty years,” she continued as my stomach knotted tighter. “He’s my mentor and my friend. He’s not going to hurt me, and I refuse to stop associating with him because of your own prejudices.”
No, my hatred of Katashi was based on cold hard facts. I drew breath to argue, but stopped at the faint smile on the man’s face. He watched me, calm, cool, and so very fucking confident.
Over thirty years. The weight of it settled onto me. She’d started training with Katashi before I was even born. Lived with him in Japan for almost ten years.
She’s been his student a year longer than I’ve been alive.
That’s what I was up against—a loyalty so deep it was beyond her comprehension that her beloved teacher and friend could be guilty of heinous acts. And I suddenly knew that if I tried to force her to see the truth I might lose her forever.
If I ever had her.
Certainly not in the way I’d always assumed.
Katashi spoke to my aunt in Japanese. She replied, also in Japanese, and with an ease and speed that marked her as fluent. Anger and dismay spiked through me at the deliberately secret conversation. Tessa had never once spoken a word to me in Japanese. Their brief exchange was a combination slap in the face and indisputable evidence of her connection to Katashi.
To my surprise she gave his shoulder a light squeeze of affection then left the room. Ordered to, or requested? New hatred for him unfolded within me, like a fresh petal on a great big ugly hate-flower.
“I don’t care how old you are, or who you have as allies, or how powerful you think you are,” I said, not bothering to try and keep my voice steady or calm or any shit like that. “If you hurt her in any way, I will hunt you to the ends of the universe and make you suffer.” I smiled thinly. “And I know a thing or two about suffering.”
Porcelain clinked against polished granite as Katashi set his cup down. “She is safer with me than if she remains here.”
“From what?” I shot back. “Certainly not you.”
“From all else.”
There was plenty else out there, I knew all too well. He probably harbored a certain amount of affection for Tessa and intended to protect her from the more dangerous elements in play. But right now Tessa was hostage and pawn, even if she refused to admit it.
“Don’t underestimate me,” I warned him.
Katashi met my eyes. “I never have.”
A chill walked up my back. Thirty years was a long time to build up loyalty. And obedience. Had it been her idea to call me over here or his? What better way to lead me into a trap. Sweat pricked beneath my arms, and my pulse quickened. More of his people might be in the house or on the way at this moment.
I shot Katashi a glare full of pure venom then strode out of the kitchen and toward the door. Tessa stepped out of the sitting room and gave me a questioning look.
“You can’t leave so soon,” she said. “I haven’t given you the turquoise and fudge!”
“Forgot an appointment,” I blurted then pulled her into an embrace. “I love you. Please stay safe.”
“No other way to be,” she replied, tone bright as she returned the hug. “I love you too, sweetling. You keep yourself safe as well, okay?”
Nodding, I released her then hurried past and out the door. My aunt remained behind—a loyal associate and friend of one of my greatest enemies.