Read an Excerpt
In the warm afternoon light, a lone swing rocked back and forth in a steady rhythm, its chains groaning a mournful dirge despite the fact no one sat upon it. It hadn't faltered once in the hour since the child vanished. The fifth to disappear in three weeks. Each one taken in front of at least a dozen witnesses who couldn't recall a single thing laterno details of when they'd last seen the child, nothing about any strangers hanging around. They didn't even recollect hearing a scream of protest. In this case, every student and teacher on the playground had been distracted at the same exact moment, but no one could remember by what when asked.
Police and technicians swarmed the steps of New Hope Elementary and the courtyard in front. All of them instinctively avoided the playground and the magic at work there. All except the figure that stood in the far corner by the rusty swing set, hands in her pockets as the late-October wind whipped around her, snatching at her clothes and carrying the scent of burning leaves. Her hair was short but still long enough for her to catch an occasional glimpse of the royal-blue streaks among the black as it blew into her face. She tucked an errant strand behind one ear, but doubted it would stay put for long.
A Realm Walker, an officer for the Agency, Juliana Norris was here because the first policeman on the scene had called her directly. This wasn't the Agency's investigation. Not yet, anyway. Her involvement was strictly advisory until the commissioner climbed down from his shiny pedestal long enough to admit local law enforcement wasn't up to doing the job on their own. While the victims thus far had been Altered, the perp hadn't been identified. Since it was possible a human was behind this, Commissioner Phipps claimed jurisdiction. No one high enough at the Agency cared enough to contradict him. Yet.
Her phone vibrated at her hip. She glanced at the screen as she pulled it outBen Nichols, her boss. The initial kidnappings had garnered so much attention in the Altered community he'd been forced to cut her suspension short by a weekan action he hadn't been happy to take at all. A fact he reminded her of every day.
"Norris," she answered and braced herself for another reprimand.
"You haven't filed a report. What's your status?"
The clipped tone of his voice exhausted her. She was tired of the daily conflict. "I haven't filed a report because there is nothing to report. We know nothing further than we did before."
"I took you off suspension to get results, Norris. So far I'm not impressed."
"No, you took me off suspension because you didn't want to get shredded by the press for keeping the Walker with the best record out of the game while the Thief does his hunting. You know I'm the most likely to find him."
There was a stretch of silence. "I know you are. That doesn't mean I have to like it."
He hung up and she slipped her phone back into her pocket. Her insistence she was the best Walker for the job had nothing to do with arrogance and everything to do with her particular blend of talents.
She possessed a gift that enabled her to see the unique signature of any living being. A signature was a spectrum of colors that told her exactly what type of creature an individual was, no matter how artfully they might try to hide it. She could also see the signature of a spell cast on anyone, or anything, other than herself. Whether the gift came from her father, the dark fae god of death, or the mage mother she couldn't remember, was anyone's guess.
Activating her gift made her eyes glow several shades brighter than their normal emerald, so she kept them hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. She studied the muddy brown of the stasis spell used on the swing. This particular shade of brown marked it wild magic. Dangerous magic. It also meant that whatever cast the spell wasn't using his own power. Wild magic belonged to no one; it simply existed. And its signature was strong enough she hadn't been able to get a read yet on what was doing the casting. It could be a mage, a fae, a god or anything else with any kind of magic ability. Which narrowed the suspect list down to about nine-tenths of the Altered community.
What she did know was the magic took great power or skill to wield. While it was better for everyone if they did, power and skill didn't necessarily go hand in hand. Maybe luck would be with them for once and one of the bastard's spells would backfire and fry him.
The swing would stay in perpetual motion, serving as a grim testament to the crime that had occurred unless someone counteracted the spell on it. Juliana plucked at the spell with two fingers. She felt nothing but saw herself grasping the blanket of color. As she pulled her hand back, the magic stretched. Finally, it snapped away from the swing. Having lost contact with the item on which it was cast, the spell slowly dissipated into the ether. Only recently had she discovered the ability to manipulate the magic she saw. As the swing slowed and creaked to a stop, she'd never been more grateful for hidden talents.
Turning her back on the playground, she surveyed the area around the school. Neighbors milled about on their lawns, comforted each other on their stoops. The soft drone of their conversations floated to her across the street. A couple of uniforms were making their way down the block taking statements from everyone. The scene was the same on the opposite side of the school. To her left sat a well-maintained, old-fashioned cemetery, the kind with a jumble of standing headstones and mausoleums instead of pristine rows of low-profile marble slabs.
The only thing she didn't see that was normal for a crime scene was the reporters. The first thing she'd done when she arrived on the scene was to have the police set the perimeter up two blocks out from the school. Though she was sure a couple of the stations had gotten footage of the swing before they'd been forced to move.
Stress and fury twisted the muscles in her shoulders and neck into taut, angry ropes. They'd been that way for days, ever since she stepped onto the first crime scene. She stretched her neck from side to side and flexed her hands. Open, closed. Open, closed. The asshole taking these kids fed on fear. Everything he did was calculated to inspire another level of terror in the populace. And he reveled in it. She knew he did. The Agency profiler said the kidnapper took the children to fulfill his own needs and his own gratification and that those needs would be centered on his victims. He claimed the kidnapper probably didn't think about how his actions affected those outside of his immediate circle. She thought the profiler was full of shit.
There was always some spell, some evidence he'd been there. If he didn't want everyone to know what he'd done, he wouldn't bother grandstanding. And that's precisely what it was. He wanted the attentionthrived on it. She had no doubt, once they discovered who their suspect was, they'd find he'd followed the media stories about his crimes religiously. Maybe he even kept souvenirs like news clippings or videos of the newscasts.
The familiar iridescent signature of a fire elemental came into view near the gap in the fence that ran around the school, and she shut down her gift. Jeremiah Grace made his way across the playground, his motions smooth and unhurried. As usual, he wore a black suit, its color stark against his red skin. "Juliana," he said by way of greeting.
Jeremiah was her screener. Rarely did she make it to a scene before him. Primarily because, by definition, his job was to get there first, look things over and decide if she needed to be involved. She'd decided that on her own this time. They couldn't keep her away from this one even if they wanted to.
She took off her sunglasses so she could look him in the eye while they talked. Her eyes quit glowing when she shut down her gift, so she didn't have to worry about startling the humans any longer. She slid the glasses into the pocket of her shirt. "What took you so long?"
He pursed his lips in irritation. "I took a portal as soon as the call came into the Agency. The better question would be: How did you get here before you were even requested?"
She gestured to a small group of policemen, their blue uniforms a sharp contrast to the redbrick building rising behind them. They were still interviewing witnesses, for all the good it would do. Another group was inside the school questioning children, their parents and the teachers. "I worked with one of them before. He had my direct number. Called me as soon as he got here and saw what was going on. You missed the self-propelled swing. I just dissipated the spell. They don't know what to do with this guy."
Hands in her pockets, she surveyed the scene again in silence. After a moment, she said, "I'm not sure why Commissioner Phipps is still insisting this isn't an Agency matter. In fact, I'm surprised he hasn't run screaming in the opposite direction." The commissioner was a speciesist, not wanting any involvement with anyone, or anything, he perceived wasn't one hundred percent human.
"Too high profile. Besides, he doesn't like to lose control of his investigations. Especially to the likes of us. You know that."
Yes, she did, but she didn't like it. Dull pain throbbed between her eyes and she pinched the bridge of her nose. "I also know that as soon as it gets screwed up, and it will, because it always does, we'll be the ones he blames. And nobody will give a shit when we say he wouldn't allow us to interfere. The Altered are, and always have been, the perfect scapegoats for anything the humans don't want to take responsibility for."
She scowled at him but didn't answer. Their perp targeted these kids because they were Altered. She knew it, but she couldn't prove it. And until she could, she was going to have to keep bowing to the commissioner's wishes. The bastard insisted it was coincidence. And since all the crimes had occurred in New Hope's jurisdiction, there was nothing she could do about it.
Jeremiah ran a hand over his bald head. "You should have let me come first. It's what they pay me for."
They both knew the only thing that would change if she'd followed procedure was it would have taken her longer to get there. Included in Jeremiah's extensive list of duties was the endless task of reminding her of Agency protocol and the numerous ways in which she failed to follow it. Not that it ever made the slightest bit of difference in how she chose to behave. Good thing neither of them actually gave a shit.
Once he realized she wasn't going to say anything, he sighed. "Have you at least learned anything new about the unsub?"
"No." She shook her head. "He's still drawing on the wild magic, not using his own. I'm beginning to wonder if he knows how. The strength of the magic completely obliterates his signature. We have a powerful being who's using wild magic either because he's just that good, or because he's too uneducated to know any better. Beyond that, I can't tell you muchother than the fact he's a sadistic bastard. But you already knew that."
"And the child?"
She grimaced as the image of the girl flashed through her brain. "Cassie Richards. Seven years old. Blond hair, blue eyes and pigtails. Missing her front teeth." She handed over the picture they had given her when she'd arrived on the scene. She pointed at two people huddled together on the stairs in the center of the chaos. Officers milled around them, occasionally stopping to talk, but didn't stay long. "The parents." They'd tried several times to get them to move inside, but the mother wanted to stay outside where her daughter had last been seen. It was almost as if she thought the girl might reappear.
"She doesn't look like them."
Juliana glanced at him in surprise. He looked between the picture and the Richardses again. Both parents had dark hair and angular faces where the girl's was round. It didn't mean anything necessarily, but Juliana found it telling that they had the same thought upon viewing the picture.
Now that she had backup, it was time to question the Richardses. "Let's get this over with." She strode toward them, knowing Jeremiah followed without having to check. The couple glanced up when her shadow fell across them. She extended a hand. "Juliana Norris. Realm Walker with the Agency."
The mother nodded once, briefly, before turning her watery, gray eyes back to the ground. Her knees pressed against her chest, and she kept her arms locked around her legs. Hope flooded her husband's features as he shook Juliana's hand. Her heart skipped in panic, and she hoped he couldn't feel the moisture on her suddenly damp palm. She hated when they looked at her like that, as if she were there to save them. As if she could fix everything. She'd do her best to help, she always did, but there were never any guarantees in her line of work. Particularly in a case like this.
Every moment that she wasted standing there feeding his hope lowered the odds of her finding his little girl alive. Thus far, none of the children had been found, but that would change and soon, of that she was certain. She just wasn't sure they would still be alive.
"Thank you for coming. Coming so quickly, I mean. You've been here all along, haven't you?" Mr. Richards stumbled over his words as she extracted her hand from his grip.
A step back gave her some room to breathe and she shoved her hands into her pockets to keep from fidgeting. "Yes, I came as soon as they called me. If you don't mind, I have some questions for you."
The look on his face grew guarded when confronted by her all-business tone. She felt like a bitch, but she couldn't get too close to this. Maintaining her distance kept her from missing clues, missing opportunities that could cost someone their life.
As always, Jeremiah recorded every word so she didn't bother with her notebook. She asked the same questions that she had of all the other parents. Questions she knew the answers to, but had to ask anyway. "Have you noticed anyone unusual lately? A car you've seen repeatedly? Someone calling the house you don't know? Anything like that?" She studied both of them, watching for any twitch that might give them away. That might indicate they weren't being truthful. "Any little thing could be important. Even something you didn't think anything of at the time but now seems odd."
As she expected, both parents shook their heads. They always did.