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THE WARDEN calls you a monster.”
Tara Sheridan stared over the edge of a manila file folder at the man in an orange jumpsuit, wrists fettered to his waist with a belly chain. He looked back at her with contempt over a battered stainless steel table. As she paged through the psych reports conducted by other profilers, she was inclined to agree with the warden’s assessment. Zahar Mouda was an accused terrorist. He’d been caught by campus police at a large Midwestern university attempting to drag a drum of solvents out of the chemistry lab. He’d been unsuccessful in convincing the campus cops that he was dragging a keg to a frat house. Subsequent investigation had discovered other missing material that could be used to make bombs. Lots of them.
Zahar shrugged, the movement restricted by the rattle of the chain. For all the dire warnings in the reports before Tara, he looked very young to Tara: thin, gangly build, large brown eyes framed by square-rimmed glasses. His file said he was twenty-two. She watched his fingers fidget with his restraints, watched him chew his lip.
“Do you think I’m a monster?” he challenged.
“I don’t know. But the Bureau of Prisons would like me to find out.”
“What do you know about monsters?” Zahar snorted.
“Plenty,” Tara told him.
He stared at her, but his gaze faltered as it snagged on a white scar that crept up from the collar of Tara’s suit jacket, curling up around her neck to her jaw. Tara didn’t flinch, didn’t bother to hide it. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt Zahar to know that Tara had faced much greater monsters than him. Monsters that had nearly killed her.
Tara leaned forward, pressing her elbows to the battered table, resting her chin in her hand. A wisp of chestnut hair from the chignon at the base of her neck pulled free, tickling the raised skin of the scar. She ignored it. “What were you doing with those chemicals?”
Zahar rolled his eyes. “Look, I was just trying to make some money. It was just little stuff, at first. First the guy asked for a departmental phone book, then a few sample slides, then …” He shook his head. “It was a few bucks, here and there. For dumb shit.”
Tara’s mouth thinned. This was how traitors were groomed. Small, inconsequential requests snowballed into larger favors. Before long, the victim had given up too much and was too indebted to his handler to climb out of the trap.
“You took the money. Why?”
“I’m trying to save up to bring my sister over here. She wants to study pharmacy.”
“Who offered you the money?”
“Some guy at the student union.”
“You got a name?” She regarded him with ink-blue eyes, measuring to see if he told the truth.
“Masozi. I already told the cops.”
Tara tapped her pen on her notepad, keeping her face carefully neutral. The Federal Bureau of Prisons had asked her to develop a profile on Zahar, to determine how dangerous he truly was. “How much?”
“Ten thousand per shipment.”
“That’s more than enough money to get your sister over here.”
Zahar leaned back in his chair, and Tara could sense he was shutting down. She tried a different tactic: “Tell me about your sister.”
Zahar licked his lips, and his eyes darted away. Not a good sign … His body language indicated he was buying time, fabricating. Or else weighing what to tell Tara. When he spoke, though, his voice was soft. Almost vulnerable. “You don’t understand. I had to buy my sister back.”
Tara’s pen stilled. “Buy her back?” she echoed.
“She’s married. Third wife of one of my father’s colleagues. He’s not really fond of her. Slaps her around.” Zahar looked away, and Tara watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “He agreed to allow her to apply for a visa, but wanted money. Fifty thousand in U.S. dollars.”
“What about student loans?”
Zahar shook his head. “I’m on fellowship. My tuition’s waived, and I get a monthly stipend. Seven hundred fifty dollars, after taxes.” His mouth turned down, and he pushed his glasses up his nose with his shoulder. “And let’s face it, nobody wants to see a male chemistry nerd do fifty thousand dollars’ worth of exotic dancing down at the strip club.”
Tara cracked a smile. “Tell me about when you were children.”
Zahar didn’t miss a beat. “Asha’s three years younger than me. Takes after our mother. She did great in school. She got through her first year of college before she met my father’s business associate when she was home on break. The guy took an immediate shine to her.” His fists balled at his waist. “I wanted to kick his ass.”
“What was her favorite toy?”
“A doll my grandmother made for her. She named it Rahma.”
“Tell me about when you fought.” This was a trick question. All siblings fought. She wanted to gauge how honest Zahar was with her.
“Our worst fight was when we were little … She was probably seven. I found a bird egg in a tree and broke it over her head. She ran crying to our mother, and we both got punished.”
“Did you feel bad about that?”
“About getting my sister in trouble? Not really.”
“No.” She paused. “About breaking the egg.”
He blinked quizzically at Tara. “I don’t know what you mean.”
A knock rang against the metal door behind Tara, and a guard’s voice filtered through: “Five minutes, Dr. Sheridan.”
“Thank you,” Tara called. She scribbled some notes on her notepad. The Bureau of Prisons had guaranteed her a secure room without observation cameras for her interview with Zahar. She was heartened to see that someone had eventually bothered to check in on them.
Zahar stared at Tara. “Well, what did you decide?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you decide whether or not I’m a monster?” His mouth twitched around the word.
“I haven’t made any decisions, yet.”
“But your opinion is one that matters.”
Tara’s mouth thinned. “Your psychological profile will make a great deal of difference in this investigation. But mine isn’t the only opinion you need to fear.”
“Will it make any difference in how I’m treated?” Zahar’s fingers knotted in the chain. “Am I going to get deported?”
“That’s not up to me.”
The door behind Tara swung open, and two federal prison guards crowded into the tiny room. They unlocked the belly chain from the metal chair, and marched the prisoner back through the door. Zahar’s plastic inmate flip-flops slapped on the concrete floor.
One of the guards held the door open. “You coming, ma’am?”
“Can you give me fifteen more minutes?” Tara said. “I’d like to jot down my notes while they’re fresh.”
“See you in fifteen.” The door clanged shut, and Tara was left in the tiny room with the fluorescent light buzzing overhead.
She stacked the contents of her file up neatly and placed it in the file folder. She shoved the folder aside, placed her purse on the table. She rooted around in the bottom of her purse for a pack of cigarettes. Tara didn’t smoke, but the cigarette pack attracted little notice on the metal detectors at the prison or in the quick manual search of her bags. Tara flipped off the lid of the pack and pulled out a deck of cards.
The backs of the cards were decorated in an Art Nouveau pattern of stars on a background of midnight blue, edged in silver. These Tarot cards had been a gift to replace the deck her mother had given her, long ago. They’d been a peace offering, of sorts—Tara’s lover had given them to her, though he was uneasy with what they represented. Tara’s original deck had been destroyed. These still felt too crisp to her, the cardstock stiff and shiny-new. She hadn’t quite yet bonded with this deck. Each deck had its own quirks, even a limited personality, and this one seemed determined to surprise Tara at each turn.
She moved to Zahar’s still-warm seat, wanting to occupy his physical space. She blew out her breath and shuffled the cards. The sharp cardstock cut her thumb as she shuffled, and she popped her thumb in her mouth as she wiped a droplet of blood from the edge of the deck.
“Tell me about Zahar,” she breathed at the cards, ignoring the paper cut. “Tell me about his heart, mind, and spirit.”
She pulled three cards and placed them, facedown, on the table. Tara’s fingers fogged the scratched stainless steel, and she turned the first one over.
The Fool, the first card in the deck, confronted her in a riot of clear watercolors. The ancestor of the joker in the modern playing card deck, the Fool depicted a young man skipping through a green field, toward the edge of a cliff. The Fool held a bundle over his shoulder, and gazed up at birds in a blue sky. The Fool, one of the Major Arcana cards, represented archetypes at play, suggested the broad strokes of destiny.
Tara steepled her fingers before her, brushing her lower lip. The Fool was a card of innocence and recklessness. It spoke of youth. Where Zahar was concerned, it might reflect the idea that Zahar had been carelessly going down the path of the traitor without watching where he was going. At heart, he might be more innocent than she’d thought.
She turned over the second card, the Seven of Cups. Cups were one of the four Minor Arcana suits, and represented choices and reactions to destiny. As a suit, cups represented emotions. In her three-card spread, this signified what had gone on in Zahar’s mind. The card depicted a man gazing at a pyramid of seven cups, from which fantastical creatures and images crawled: dragons, golden fish, a jewel-encrusted sword, a snake, a castle, a griffin, and a veiled woman. This was a card of illusions. Zahar’s head was filled with lies, perhaps from his handler, perhaps from his sister’s husband. Zahar may have started out innocent, as the Fool, but he’d made a choice to be deceived.
The last card in the spread represented spirit. Tara was most eager to see what Zahar really was, deep down. She flipped over the Three of Wands, which depicted a man staring out over the sea at a ship, surrounded by three staves. The Minor Arcana suit of wands represented fire, movement, and creation. But the Three of Wands was reversed, suggesting treachery and ulterior motives. Tara’s brow wrinkled. Zahar’s handler may have been lying to him, and Zahar might have even been deceiving himself. But, with this card, she was also certain that Zahar was lying to her.
She blew out her breath. She cleared the three cards from the table, shuffled them back into the deck. She felt the whir of the rigid cards in her hands as she whispered to them: “What else do I need to know?”
Tara cut the deck three times and drew the first card from the top of the reshuffled deck. Her brow creased as she turned it over.
The Lovers. The Major Arcana card depicted a man and a woman tangled in an embrace. It was difficult for her to tell where one ended and the other began. A voyeuristic angel watched over them from a cloud.
Stymied, Tara rested her head in her hand. She didn’t yet fully trust this new deck, and it seemed that this card had nothing whatsoever to do with Zahar’s situation. She tapped the picture with her fingers, let her mind rove around the image. She didn’t like where free-associating led her: to her own personal life. To Harry Li. Harry had given her this deck, and it seemed to be intent upon reminding her of him.
Her fingertips crawled up her collar to the scars lacing her throat, remembering Harry’s kisses upon them. She hadn’t seen Harry for months. As an agent for the Special Projects Division of the Department of Justice, he’d been sent out several times—destinations classified—on various assignments, making a relationship difficult. Tara understood; years ago, she’d been an agent for Special Projects. Special Projects took, but rarely gave anything back.
Her fingers hesitated on her scars. Special Projects had taken a great deal from her. Working for them, she’d fallen under the tender mercies of the Gardener, a serial killer who buried women in his greenhouses. She’d survived, barely, and called it quits. She only hoped that Harry wouldn’t be subjected to similar dangers.
The latch on the consultation room door ratcheted back, and the door opened. Tara scrambled to shovel her cards into her purse. Looking up with a scowl, she expected to see one of the guards.
“You’re back early—” she snapped, but her breath snagged in her throat.
Harry Li stood in the doorway, his hand on the knob. He was almost exactly as she’d remembered him from months ago: sharply creased charcoal suit, polished shoes, black hair precisely parted. But there were circles beneath his almond-shaped eyes.
“Hi, Tara.” He let the door clang shut behind him.
“I … oh. I thought you were the guard.” She finished scooping the cards into her purse, but her heart hammered.
Harry inclined his chin at the disappearing cards. “Still reading?”
“Yeah.” She zipped her purse shut and folded her hands over it. “How did you find me?” she asked, but what she really wanted to ask was: Why here, and why now?
“When you said you were getting back to work, I figured that you wouldn’t stray too far from your forensic psychology roots.”
Tara’s mouth turned down. “Just contract work. Some pro bono stuff for psychiatric hospitals. That kind of thing.” She’d dipped her toe back into work, gingerly. So far, it seemed to be going well, in those measured small doses. Her work with Zahar was filling in for a government psychologist away on maternity leave.
An awkward silence stretched.
Harry stuffed his hands in his pockets, jingled loose change. He did that when he was nervous. “I missed you.”
Tara glanced up at him. His face was open, tired, and she felt a jab of sympathy for him. Her fingers knotted in her purse strap. She was fighting the urge to stand up and kiss him. “I missed you, too.”
His eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he dropped into the other chair on the opposite side of the table. Exhaustion was palpable in the broken line of his shoulders. “Special Projects is killing me.”
Tara reached across the table for his hand. His fingers folded around hers so tightly that she couldn’t tell where hers ended and his began. .
“I’ve been there,” she said, without irony.
“I know.” His mouth flattened. “That’s why I came to ask for your help.”
Tara’s hand froze. She had hoped that he’d come to see her. Not for work. “Oh.” She looked down at her fuzzy reflection in the table.
Harry reached across the table and crooked a finger under her chin. “Hey. That’s not what I mean. I wanted to see you, and—”
Tara withdrew her hand and pulled her chair back, drawing her professional mantle tightly about her. “Tell me about your case, Harry.”
Harry stared down at his empty hand, closed it. “A half dozen Cold War-era intelligence operatives have disappeared. We’ve got evidence that specialized intel connected to them is being sold internationally, to the highest bidder. Most of it has to do with uranium stockpiles, leftover pieces of weapons from Soviet Russia. Tehran has been all over it.”
“That sounds like a military issue. Or an NSA problem.” Tara crossed her arms over her chest.
“You would think. But the disappearances are … unusual. These men and women have been vanishing without a trace. No bodies, no evidence of struggles.”
Tara shrugged. “Maybe they defected. Maybe they’re having a beach party in Tehran.”
“Homeland Security hasn’t caught any of them trying to move outside the country. Some of them have literally walked off surveillance footage and were never seen again. It’s like the fucking Rapture—they leave their clothes, jewelry, even cell phones behind, and vanish.” He smirked, mouth turning up flirtatiously. “Of course, there’s also the fact that there are no beaches in Tehran.”
Tara lifted an eyebrow, intrigued at both the case and the flirtation. “What’s their connection to each other?”
“All of them were associated with something called Project Rogue Angel in the 1990s. It involved cataloguing and tracking the disposal of nukes in the former USSR.”
“That sounds like a thankless job.”
“Wasn’t as successful as one might hope.” Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I think somebody got to these people. I can’t prove it. But I need help in figuring out who’s behind the disappearances. You’re the best damn profiler Special Projects has ever seen, and we need you.”
Tara considered him. Harry wasn’t the type of man who would readily ask for help, and he’d done so in a clumsy way. She was reluctant to become involved with Special Projects again, to be their tool. But she owed him.
He looked at her, eyes red with too little sleep. “I need you.”
She reached forward and took his hand. She couldn’t say no to him.
© 2011 Laura Mailloux
Posted March 24, 2011
This series is very well-crafted. The core of the book is a mystery-thriller. However, the novel has ahorror, fantasy and sci-fi elements and a bit of romance tossed-in. That may sound like a lot is going on, but the author uses all the elements very well. All the parts come together seamless and the novel keeps a fast-pace. The heroine is tough and intelligent. I appreciate that she relies on those qualities instead of super-powers.
Unique in terms of world building in a lot of urban fatansy, the magic in the novel is subtle and understated while still interesting. As a tarot geek myself, I appreciate the author's attention and research in regards the tarot.
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Posted February 24, 2011
Smart, engaging and a total thrill-ride. Rogue Oracle blew me away. I'm a sucker for reading about catching a criminal. A lot of the time though, I end up disappointed. I am very happy to say that is not the case with Rogue Oracle.
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Posted January 31, 2011
Criminal profiler Tara Sheridan is an expert forensic psychologist who enhances her abilities with tarot card readings. However her skills failed her when a psychopath nearly killed her. Shaken to her bone marrow, Tara resigns from her position at the U.S. Department of Justice's "Special Projects" unit.
Recently several of the unit's former operatives have vanished under strange circumstances. Tara's former lover Harry Li asks for her help on his investigation partly because he needs her special skills and partly to keep her safe. The clues lead to Chernobyl where the pair tries to prevent a second catastrophe from occurring. At the same time Tara struggles with her dubious relationship with Delphi's Daughters especially their chief.
This is an engaging thriller due more to the fascinating villain who steals the show because the motives that drive the adversary ring true. In her second profiling appearance (see The dark Oracle) Tara is an intriguing blending of science and pseudoscience as she combines the paranormal with the profiling normal. Although at times the plot slows down and the ending is too low key after a Chernobyl II countdown, readers will find themselves zoning out during long expository passages, and a very anticlimactic ending leaves you with a sense of dissatisfaction. Still, the great villain and good visual descriptions keep this from being a total loss.
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Posted May 5, 2013
This is such a unique and fascinating story. I haven’t read anything like this series before! And there’s so much to offer a reader. Not only do you get your plot and fiction parts, but some very interesting non fiction facts as well. I am loving the parts about the oracles and divinations and different skill sets of each. I will also say that I may now add to the unban fantasy and mystery, a little sci-fi too. We had the physics parts in the first book and now we are looking at some chemical reactions. Trust me, I HATED chemistry almost more than physics, so it is an EXTREME talent to keep me interested, and this author did just that!
Tara is such a different type of female heroine that most. She’s got her tarot cards, and she’s learning, and growing. She’s got her own set of morals and she’s learning how to be exactly who she is. I love this about her. And we are meeting some new characters, as well as some pop in’s with some old characters.
Being in the Daughters and working with the Pythia to me is downright scary. You see glimpses of this in the first book, but now you are getting to the down and dirty and they are somewhat cruel at times. And now, Cassie’s in the hot seat, with Tara slightly on the side and things are getting really complicated!
I love the way this author writes so much. She has such a distinctness to her words. And though she is sometimes explaining things that are complex, she never makes them seem that way. She finds a way to explain in lament terms and I never feel like I am being bombarded with all kind of useless info. I am still sticking with my mystery fans- you are missing out if you aren’t reading this. And trust me, there’s plenty of fantasy/paranormal in here too! And maybe even a little for a history buff or sci fi fan! 4.5 SERIOUSLY CREEPY PAWS! Let’s go right on to book 3-or at least I seriously hope there will be more!
Posted July 21, 2012
Hope This Series Continues
Review brought to you by OBS staff member Verushka
Rogue Oracle picks up the threads of Tara and Cassie’s life with the Delphi Daughters. Pythia has begun training Cassie to take over as Pythia, that is, the head of the Delphi Daughters, while Tara, who still distrusts Pythia, stays to keep watch. It is Cassie’s decision to stay, to learn what she can and Tara is there to provide support and a counter-balance to the training she knows Cassie will receive. Tara meets Harry again, while freelancing as a profiler and is drawn into a genuinely creepy case involving old secret agents and Chernobyl. Williams takes a historical moment and weaves an unexpected, complex and riveting tale, fuelled most of all by Galen, the killer Tara and Harry are trying to catch. There is something unique about his method of killing people, but one I won’t reveal here – I will say that in those moments, I cringed because of how creeped out I was with Galen, and I mean that in a good way!
Old spies are missing, and Harry confused and frustrated with the way the case is going asks Tara for help. She agrees and so begins the case. The case itself is tightly drawn, tapping into the our current fear of terrorist attacks to heighten the tension. This lets Harry’s and Tara’s relationship develop further, for since Dark Oracle, Harry had left her behind with the Daughters and not returned. Now, we see how frustrated and jaded Harry has become and Williams gives a better picture of Harry in this book, than we got in the first one.
However, while Tara is investigating this, the Pythia puts Cassie through a harsh test of her own, resulting in Cassie fleeing, and Tara trying to find her. As much as the first book was about re-introudcing the Daughters to Tara’s life, this one highlights the downside of being part of them, of the Pythia’s teaching.
William’s characters, supporting especially, are strongly drawn and no words are wasted; everything means something, including the vivid descriptions of each time Tara’s uses her cards. Added to this, her power seems to have grown in this book into visions, and dreams, which while they are interesting to see where they take Tara, it is the book’s weakest link. The dreams continue for pages, describing everything in wonderful detail and what Tara gleans from them to help her, but soon enough they overpower the case and the human/normal balance that Williams expertly achieved in the first book.
Two things of consequence happen in this book, we see Tara reconnect with Harry, and her powers increase. The supporting cast of characters grows and while “the two Steve’s”, Cassie’s protectors in this book, serve as a obvious counterbalance to the female presence of the Daughters, Williams never strays – too much – into cliché territory.
I sincerely hope this series continues for Williams has built a fabulous world of interesting, emotionally complex characters that are a breath of fresh air in the current urban fantasy genre.
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Posted May 20, 2011
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Posted August 26, 2011
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Posted January 19, 2012
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