After checking in through the front security, Darren and Les headed toward the far end of the back hall. The Talent unit wasn’t segregated—that wouldn’t be legal. However, they were in the far corner of the second floor, and it was quicker to take the stairs, because unlike most units, theirs was on the south side of the holding cells. Darren liked the privacy that afforded the unit.
“Not a word,” Les warned as they headed up the stairs. “Seriously, if the name Anderson
passes your lips, the unit is going to shut down like your Aunt Maggie’s britches.”
“I don’t have an Aunt Maggie.”
Les stopped at the top of the stairs to glare at him. “Idiot,” he said fondly, and then he headed for the open area where the team had their desks grouped together. Everyone, including Boucher, had a desk set in a square around a center worktable that was generally covered with the debris of their latest case. They had a high-tech display board off to the side, but no one ever had time to load the right images into it. None of them were very techie.
Coretta, Les, and Rima all had backgrounds in local law enforcement. They could handle computers easily enough, but they were used to printing everything and keeping paper records. And Traci was old enough that she sometimes gave the computer a side eye and refused to learn a new program until it proved its worth by sticking around for a year or two. Plenty of hot new pieces of software came and went before meeting her standard. However, her previous assignment had been in support services. She was the best with the computers once she decided a program was worth learning.
Darren suspected that she had transferred because she couldn’t keep up with the tech aspects of the job anymore. She was well over fifty and near mandatory retirement, but she was too stubborn to walk away from the FBI without being forced out.
Les bypassed the table and headed over to where Rima was typing up a report. “Hey, Rima, my girl, my beautiful angel.”
She gave him a dirty look. “One more compliment, and I’ll file sexual harassment charges.” She was a beautiful woman, but she had her blonde hair pulled up and tucked into a tight bun, and her clothes were as baggy as she could find while complying with the FBI dress code. She kept threatening to get a job with some local law enforcement agency in Oregon where she could wear flannel to work.
“You can’t blame a guy for trying. My charm works with most women,” Les said.
“No it doesn’t. You’re so obvious and pathetic they feel sorry for you,” Rima said with an evil smile.
Les laughed. “Okay, that might be true, but I have an actual question here. If someone wanted to create a magical shield, what sort of spell would that take?”
“A magical shield? What sort?” She turned away from her computer and gave Les all her attention.
“Something that would block all magical signatures from showing up. I’m thinking something that might be specific to the innate magic of an adept.”
Rima pushed her chair back and stared at Les in horror. She then looked at Darren, and for a second he thought she might have figured out their ploy. Rima was firmly in the Anderson is a good guy
camp, probably the first to pitch her tent on that field. Darren tried to ignore the gnawing hurt that caused. “You think someone tried to put a shield around our missing adepts?”
“He didn’t say that,” Darren hurried to say.
“No, but when you two start asking me about crazy ideas, I start looking for the case to run off in interesting directions.” She waggled her finger between Darren and Les, and to be fair they did have a tendency to take off on tangents. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes they chased their tails for a few days before Boucher pulled the leash tight and made them refocus.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. This is just a question,” Les said firmly. He traded concerned looks with Darren. Yeah, if Boucher found out that his case had been sidetracked by the two of them conspiring against Anderson, the damage would be on the level of thermonuclear warheads.
“I’ve never heard of that kind of a spell, and it would take serious mojo. I don’t know a spell user who could do it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Blocking an adept would take some pretty shady spells and a source of magical energy, unless you’re talking a shaman who had direct access to the spirit plane. Do we have any shamans as suspects?”
“Don’t you think Boucher would notice another shaman sniffing around?” Darren asked.
“Considering what’s been going on around here recently, I’m not sure the boss is exactly focused.” Her expression was enough to make it perfectly clear she blamed Darren for that. “But even if we assume he could pick up this sort of spell, that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t hide. There are some very powerful shamans out there, and we know shamans are particularly interested in adepts.”
“Boy, that’s no joke.” Les retreated to his own chair. “I fled the islands to get away from a stalker. The best part of this job is having Boucher around to intimidate any shamans that get too friendly.”
“Without an adept, there’s a limit to how much shamans can develop their spirit realms.” Rima rapped her knuckles against her desk absentmindedly. “So if a shaman wants an adept and can’t get one, that could be one hell of a psychological trigger. A lot of idiots think that the stronger the color, the stronger the adept, and look at these poor bastards.” She pulled a picture out of the folder on her desk. Steve Randers had adept marks on his hands and arms and even on his ears. His short dark hair framed the vivid blue and green streaking along his ears; the markings faded as they got closer to his face.
“If someone thinks that makes him a strong adept, they don’t know how magic works,” Les said.
“Not all magic is the same,” Rima countered. “I wouldn’t know how to use crystals if my life depended on it, and I once tried to show Coretta how to use a spell, and it did not end well. That incident shall never be spoken of again, and hopefully I can repair all the damage before my landlord sees it. Just because someone is good at shamanic magic doesn’t mean they’d know the first thing about adepts or shielding spells.”
Les stared at the ceiling. “Sadly true.”
“But if someone less than shamanic level wanted to block an adept’s power, we’re looking for some source of magic—lightning-struck wood, a cursed or blessed object, a body part from a dead Talent, a meteorite, something. If a spell user is blocking an adept’s power as part of some kidnapping or shielding the evidence, we’re looking at the black market because supplies that powerful tend to attract attention.” Rima madly typed on her computer. This was getting out of hand fast, and Darren didn’t want to sidetrack the investigation. However, the more he thought about it, the more plausible this sounded.
“This is all speculation,” Darren warned, “and we don’t have any evidence that shamans wanted our missing persons. Shamans need someone they can trust to work as a magical lifeline, and these guys all turned their backs on magic.” Darren felt a familiar sensation, almost like a warm breath against the back of his neck. He wasn’t surprised when Boucher spoke.
“What are we working on?”
Darren didn’t turn around. Looking at Boucher made some part of Darren’s gut ache. Kavon Boucher was a handsome man with dark, blue-black skin and light brown eyes that could mesmerize a person without him using magic at all. He had freckles across the bridge of his nose and upper cheeks, but his skin was such a deep, rich color that they weren’t visible unless Boucher used his magic. Then the freckles seemed to glow faintly with a blue light.
Now every time Darren looked at Boucher, Anderson was there, like that little yappy dog in the cartoons that chased after its big buddy. Of course, in the cartoon, the joke ended with the big dog chasing after the little one, but that wasn’t going to happen here. Boucher was an influential man, with or without magical powers. He had fifteen years’ experience in the field and degrees in criminal psychology, deviant psychology, and ethics. Anderson didn’t deserve a place at his side.
Rima answered. “Darren and Les have a new theory. We’ve been looking at norms because there’s no magical signature near the sites where our missing persons turned up missing. But what if a shaman or someone working for shamans used spells to cover their tracks?”
“This is just a wild theory,” Darren hurried to add.
“Yeah, but it fits,” Les said. “That would explain why the adepts didn’t even try to defend themselves. Because when it comes to getting kidnapped, fuck religious beliefs, people are going to use whatever weapons they have.” He rolled his chair over to Rima’s desk and tapped Steve Randers’s picture. “He might wear those colors like a martyr proving that Satan can’t corrupt him, but if he was in fear for his life, he would lash out with every ounce of magic he could call up.”
“And it would show up on the spirit plane,” Boucher said. “Interesting. You think a spell could do that?” He turned to Rima since she was one of their two experts on spells.
She shrugged. “Hey, spelling is the hardest of the user skills apart from shamanic journeying, and it can do some badass stuff. It’s possible. I’m looking on the Internet, specifically on the dark web, for any movement on magical power sources.”
Up until this point, Coretta had remained in the background. Darren had the feeling she was increasingly uncomfortable with him, but if someone was out there peddling spells to mask a magical signature, that might explain a few things. Darren felt horrible, but he still hoped he could prove Anderson’s guilt. Of course the case was more important, but he couldn’t escape the need to prove he wasn’t imagining Anderson’s personal attacks. Darren admitted that he was too emotionally involved with his boss. That didn’t mean his instincts as an agent were wrong.
Coretta said, “If someone had a spell like that, we might want to take a look at these two churches again. If we have a holy hypocrite running around, they might want to keep their magical members on lockdown. You know how weird those sorts can get.”
Les groaned. “Crap. If we assume that someone can hide their magical fingerprints, we have to start from square one. If we have one of those blood-of-Jesus magic users, and they can do magic to hide their own signature, we are screwed. We won’t know where to start looking.”
“Maybe you need time to investigate the spells, but if someone is doing magic that strong, there will be some evidence on the spirit plane. I’m going back to the scene of the Nestor disappearance. Oberton, Anderson, you’re with me. Dolen, get Wyatt on a search of the dark net,” Boucher ordered Rima before he told Coretta, “Nixon, the office is yours.”
Darren was shocked. Boucher wanted him to come along, but he wanted Anderson too. The desire to follow his boss was tangled in Darren’s fear of spending a significant amount of time in close quarters with Anderson. There were so many things that could go wrong. For one, they did have a religion anti-magic shaman in the area—a faith healer who had tried to attack Boucher on the spirit plane, but apparently Boucher had shredded his lion spirit guide. When Darren had first started on the Talent unit, he had thought of guides as animals and assumed that any guide that could defeat a lion would need to be a large animal. Now he knew that a strong hummingbird could kick an inept lion’s ass on the spirit plane. Not that Darren thought Kavon had a hummingbird for a guide.
Boucher headed for the stairs. For one second, Darren considered asking Boucher to take one of the others because he couldn’t handle it. After a concerned look in Les’s direction, Darren hurried after his boss. If the mess with Anderson blew up, Darren wanted to be close enough to make sure Boucher didn’t get stabbed in the back.