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The desolate road stretched off into the darkness like a black scar through the woods. In the predawn light, the trees leaned forward, their leaves dull gray, void of true color, their trunks shadows among shadows. Laura Blackstone shifted in her car seat, the engine a soft rumble behind the classical music whispering from the speakers. Watching the road, she sipped her coffee. Other cars sat hidden among the trees, a bit of chrome here and there gleaming beneath the waning moon, the glow of cell phones dancing like orange fireflies as others waited with her.
To outward appearances, Laura was calm and relaxed. She had spent years learning to control her emotions and reactions. Herself. Learned not to show fear or anger or stress. Those emotions all happened inside now.
Of course, to outward appearances she didn't look like Laura Blackstone at all. People who knew Laura Blackstone knew the woman who worked as the public-relations director at the Fey Guild. They saw a fit woman, her face of an indeterminate young age, who spent her time spinning the fey agenda for the media. They saw a druid, one of the fey who had the ability to manipulate essence. She didn't look different from humans. She fit in.
Trying to convince humans that the power of the fey was simply an expression of who and what they were and not dangerous was important to her. It wasn't magic, what she did. It was inherent in the nature of the fey, an expression of someone who came from Faerie. Some fey had better skill in manipulating essence than others. Some had none at all. Essence could be dangerous. So could a knife or a gun. Or a fist. Having the potential to use essence as a weapon didn't mean every fey would use it that way. They didn't wake up in the morning and decide they were going to hurt someone. Some did. Laura wasn't naïve. Some humans made the conscious choice to cause pain, too. But to Laura, singling out the fey as the sole source of danger and worry in the world was wrong.
Which brought her to the dark car on a dark road, masked to look like someone else. Glamours were one of her skills, and she made them better than anyone else. With the right manipulation of essence, she could alter her appearance. The transformation was complete in every sensevisual, auditory, and tactile
Visual. Auditory. Tactile.
If a colleague from the Guild walked up to her and asked for directions, he would have no clue that the thin, dark-haired woman in the car was the blond public-relations director he worked with. If she were to introduce herself, the soft Irish lilt in her voice would sound nothing like Laura's strictly American speech pattern. Her clear blue eyes would stare at him with no indication they were truly green. The mask was complete. He would believe she was someone named Mariel Tate.
That's what attracted the notice of the International Global Security Agency. InterSec first tapped Laura as a policy advisor. By treaty, it worked with governments around the globe as a police force for the fey that extended beyond the borders of nations. When the agency realized she had skills beyond the diplomatic, it recruited her for the special-operations division. Laura Blackstone disappeared from their roster, and Mariel Tate was born.
Five miles out, Sinclair sent.
The phrase reverberated in her mind. The fey called it a sending, the wrapping of thoughts in a tangle of essence to send messages to each other's minds. Sinclair was descended from a jotunn, a fire giant of the Teutonic fey, but he was more human than not. He didn't have the abilities of someone who was fully fey, but he could do sendings. They were difficult for him, which was why he sounded so rough in her mind, and he used them only sparingly.
Laura had met Sinclair on her last major mission. Through a series of mistakes and compromises, he ended up working for InterSec on a probationary basis for reasons that gave her a keen sense of responsibility. He was where he was because of her. She wanted him to succeed. It didn't escape her that her worry about him was more than professional concern, but she wasn't going to dwell on that in the middle of a job.
A political organization called the Legacy Foundation was showing signs of going radical. Sinclair had inserted himself into the lower rungs of the power structure, where people were more likely to trust a newcomer. After a few weeks, the decision had paid off with information that Legacy was moving a shipment of weapons into D.C. InterSec had decided to intercept the delivery and, with luck, solidify Sinclair's undercover status.
Laura had been waiting hours for Sinclair's signal. She made her own sendings to give the others notice that it was showtime.
Against the pale ash sky, arc lights blazed to life. The metallic blue strobe of police lights flashed from the tops of three cars parked along the breakdown lane. People exited their cars, men and women in law-enforcement uniforms. They moved cones into the road, then lit flares to reveal a large traffic sign propped up against sawhorses. In a matter of moments, a drunk-driver checkpoint was in place in the middle of the Virginia back road.
Laura drank the remains of her cold coffee and dropped the empty cup on the floor as she left the car. She moved into the trees across from the checkpoint, sensing other InterSec agents taking their posts nearby. Even in the dark, their body signaturestheir personal essenceswhirled with color in Laura's sensing ability. Druids were adept at sensing body signatures, but the same quirk of fate that gave Laura the ability to create flawless glamours seemed to have limited her ability to sense essence unless she was close to it. Farther along the road, she knew Danann fairies hid in the trees although she couldn't see them. One by one, they exchanged sendings confirming they were in position.
Two miles, Sinclair sent.
An engine made a hollow sound in the far distance. Where the road met the horizon, a dim glow grew until it resolved into headlights.
Got you. Good luck, Laura sent.
The engine throttled louder as a panel truck approached. One of the uniformed officers strolled into the road and waved a flashlight with an orange cone attached to the end. As the truck neared, it slowed and pulled into the breakdown lane. A white man, rough-skinned and dark-haired, leaned out the driver's side window as another officer approached. "Is there a problem?" he asked.
The officer flashed his flashlight in the driver's eyes. "This is a DWI checkpoint. Have you been drinking this evening, sir?"
"No," he said.
The officer swept his beam along the side of the truck as two more officers took up position several feet to the rear of the vehicle. "Where are you going this morning, sir?"
"Arlington," the driver replied.
The officer pointed the flashlight inside the cab, illuminating a rider in the passenger seat. "Can I see your license, registration, and insurance please?"
The driver's head moved out of sight as he leaned toward the glove compartment. The officer took the moment to make eye contact with his backup. The driver handed out folded papers. The officer stepped back. "I'll be back in a moment, sir."
He walked in front of the truck and got into the police car. Seconds stretched into minutes.
They're getting antsy. Guns are coming out, Sinclair sent. Laura relayed his message to the surrounding agents.
The police officer returned from his car, this time with his partner strolling along the passenger side of the truck. He handed the papers to the driver. "Can you step out of the car, please?"
"Is there something wrong, officer?" the driver asked.
"This is a random roadside sobriety check. It'll only take a minute."
Laura tensed as the driver didn't move. She knew the agents posing as the police officers and knew they were ready for anything. The driver's door opened. The officer on the opposite of the truck pointed his hand at the cab. "Close your door and stay in the car."
Laura couldn't see the other side of the truck, but by the lack of any further talk or action, she assumed the passenger had started to open the door, then complied with the order to close it The driver stepped out and was put through the standard field tests. He touched his nose without any problem.
"Follow me, sir," the officer said as he led him to the back of the truck. They moved far enough away that Laura couldn't hear them. The officer had the driver walk the painted line marking the breakdown lane.
When the driver finished, the officer moved closer to the truck again. "What's in the back?" he asked.
"Tools," said the driver.
"Let's open 'er up," said the officer.
The driver hesitated. "Can you do that?"
"Do what, sir?"
"Search my truck without a warrant?"
The officer cocked his head. "Who said anything about a search? Are you saying I should get a warrant?"
The driver shrugged. "I'm just asking."
"So, are you going to open it up?" the officer said.
The driver shook his head. "Not without a warrant I ain't."
The officer grasped the handle. "Well, you go ahead and find yourself a warrant while I take a look inside."
The driver took a step forward. "Hey!"
Another officer pulled his gun and pointed it at him. "Get back and keep your hands out."
The driver froze as the first officer turned the handle. Before he had the chance to open the door, someone inside kicked it. Gunfire erupted, and the driver fell to the ground as the two officers dropped back to the sides of the truck. More gunfire sounded from the passenger side.
Two men jumped out of the van, their AK-47s sparking yellow flashes as they fired into the open air. Sinclair appeared behind them, his height making him easy to recognize. While the first two men swept the ground with more gunfire, Sinclair leaned away from the van, firing into the distant empty road. InterSec agents swept out from the tree line, bolts of essence springing like white lightning from their hands.
Laura primed her own essence and ran toward the truck. She fired at the back of the closest man, and he fell over. The second man stepped between her and Sinclair. Sinclair trained his weapon on her.
Head shot, she sent.
Sinclair fired. She reacted to the flash, snapping her head back and throwing her body onto the pavement. As she landed, she rolled to a still position, facing the van. She watched Sinclair grab his companion by the back of his vest and pull him away. As they ran for the tree line, Sinclair fired another barrage as they disappeared into the shadows of the trees, forcing the InterSec agents to back off.
Laura waited until the sound of gunshots moved into the distance. She stood, brushing off debris. Although she had been far enough away from the propellant gases from Sinclair's blanks, the odor of gunpowder had settled on her. She joined two of her fellow agents by the prone body of the driver. A druid she didn't know looked up, unimpressed. "The idiots killed one of their own, Tate. It doesn't look like this bunch is going to be tough to handle."
Her lip curled down in annoyance as she stared at the body. "What's the status of the guy in the passenger seat?"
"Dead," someone called out.
Laura sighed as she crouched by the guy she had shot. He was alive, but unconscious. She wouldn't know if his brain was scrambled until he woke up. With no ability to shield themselves, humans didn't take essence shots well.
You doing okay? she sent to Sinclair.
Almost clear. Get the air cover to move west. They're too close, he replied.
She did as he asked, then watched the essence-fire flashing in the distance shift away. She stood out of the way at the rear of the truck as the team brought lights in closer. The heavy-duty crates inside the truck appeared innocuous. Someone flipped one open. She snorted in mild despair. Rocket launchers. Legacy must have changed or added to the weapon manifest at the last minute because Sinclair had reported the shipment would be guns and ammunition.
From the far side of the van, EMTs pushed a gurney with the sheet-draped body of the front-seat passenger. Another group wheeled up to the driver's body. Two dead. One foolishly had stood in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the other stupidly had fired a gun that gave licensed law enforcement the right to return fire. She wondered whose lives were being saved by confiscating the weapons. She wondered if two deadeven two of the bad guysjustified their mission. She wondered if their goal would be achieved with blood on their hands. For a moment, she wondered what the goal was but pushed the thought aside. That wasn't her job.
"I'm heading in," she said. The nearby agents would handle the cleanup. That was their job. As she approached her car, she noticed a few bullet holes in the front fender. She hadn't realized she had been close to being shot. She slid back into the driver's seat and switched the classical music to something heavierindustrial rock filled with crashes and static and angst. It felt more appropriate under the circumstances.
You okay? She sent to Sinclair.
It's all good, he said. The reply was soft and slow, which meant he was a fair distance away.
See you when you can, she sent. He didn't respond, probably saving energy. All the sendings he had done tonight were going to give him a headache by morning.
The lights of the checkpoint vanished into the darkness behind her. She let the weight of the evening slip away and released the tension of the operation. Another day, another success. Two dead, but they weren't her dead, and they weren't InterSec.
It's all good, she thought. The thought settled heavily in her mind.