Home > Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(12)

Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(12)
Author: Faith Hunter

The Colonel was dead now. I was partly responsible. And I was happy about it. Hell’s road was an easy one to tread.

Making my lack of social skills worse, in my background, men and women didn’t joke about physical matters until they were married. And often not even then. But I had listened to the joking and teasing and semisexual repartee at Spook School as hormones kicked in and people paired off—not to indulge in sexual experimentation, as that was forbidden and a sure way to get kicked out of the program, but as a form of social interaction. I decided to try a joking response, and raised my nose in the air. “I’m sure that I’m not the tick-checking kinda gal.”

Occam chuckled and widened his stride. “I’m pretty sure I can check myself for my ticks. But you can wash my back if you want.”

I blushed and Occam’s grin, and the small dimple in one cheek, deepened. I said, “I thank you for the offer, but I’ll pass on the personal body servant interaction.”

Occam sputtered into surprised laughter.

I had no idea what he found amusing. Oddly the sound of his laughter made me feel lighter, freer, like a feather in the wind. I smiled to myself, and Occam’s laughter sputtered into deep breathing as he loosened up into the run.

This was . . . interesting. I had made a man laugh. I glanced his way, seeing a blond, golden-eyed man who ran with the grace of his werecat. I had a totally inappropriate thought. I wondered if I could catch the were-taint if Occam and I . . . I wasn’t human, so . . . I shook off the deepening blush and pushed the thought away even as I pushed my legs into a sprint. Such thoughts were evil . . . well, maybe not evil, but they were certainly nonproductive and utterly inappropriate for a widder-woman like me.

Back at HQ, sweaty and bothered in ways that had nothing to do with cardio, I grabbed my gobag, disappeared into the locker room for a quick shower, and changed back into my work clothes. I kept remembering the sight of Occam’s long legs, sheathed in denim, stretching into a run beside mine. Totally, totally, totally inappropriate.

* * *

The unit was gathered in the conference room, salads and soup and sandwiches at each place. I hadn’t ordered and didn’t know the protocol until Rick said, “I got you a half salad and a half sub from Yoshi’s Deli. You owe me seven forty-nine. Receipt is under the bag. For now, eat. Occam, Tandy, update.”

I sat and placed my laptop on the table, glad I had brought it, because it looked as if all meals were working meals at PsyLED, whether we were all together in one place or eating alone. Everyone had laptops and tablets and cells at the ready.

Occam dropped into the chair across from me and said, “Tandy, you start?”

Tandy shook his head, his wet reddish hair slapping. “Never go into the woods with a werecat.” Drinking soup from a paper bowl, he sent a sideways look at Occam and wiped his mouth. “He kept climbing trees and sticking his nose into disgusting places. I kept waiting for him to spray to mark his territory.”

“I was gettin’ vantage points,” Occam said, sounding fake-wounded. “I was helpful.”

“He kept dropping piles of leaves on me. And once a bird’s nest. I’m sure it was full of bird mites. I wanted to wash with Clorox, but HQ doesn’t have any. You need to talk to the cleaning crew,” he added to Rick.

“I’ll get right on that,” Rick said in the tone that meant, I’ll get right on that, never.

“We don’t have a cleaning crew,” T. Laine said.

“Sure we do. Now,” Occam said, all innocent sounding.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I am not keeping up this building. I am not cleaning up behind a dirty, messy, rude, crude man again. Not ever.” I lifted my nose into the air. “And I am certainly not sweeping up cat hair.”

T. Laine jerked forward and nearly spilled her drink.

Tandy snorted loud and started coughing.

I placed an innocent smile on my face, one worthy of a churchwoman to a difficult churchman, and bit into my sandwich.

“Oh, Nell,” Occam said, a feral glint in his eye, that even I knew had to be his cat lurking. “You may pay for that one.”

“You can try to outwit a churchwoman, cat boy. You can try.”

JoJo said, “Thank God he’s got another one to pick on. I was getting tired of proving to him that any woman was a better practical joker than any man.”

“Ohhhh. It’s on, sugar,” Occam said to me. “And as for you”—he pointed at JoJo—“the salt in your coffee was priceless.”

“The dead mouse in your desk drawer was perfect, kitty cat. We all heard you go Eeep.”

“Guys,” Rick said. “Back to the report, if you please.”

Watching the byplay, I realized that while I had been gone, the individual members of Unit Eighteen had become a team. They teased and played practical jokes on one another. They treated one another the way Occam had treated me on the run. The way my brother Sam and I had treated each other as we grew up.

Most important, they looked after one another. Someone, probably T. Laine, from the way she watched him, had been making sure that Tandy ate. The empath had been far too skinny when I saw him last, his face pale and strained. Now it looked as if he had gained ten pounds and his face was wreathed in a smile. It was a good feeling.

“I sent you all the GPS site where the deer were spelled,” Tandy said.

“It was a small wood between two neighborhoods,” Occam said. “Lot of scents, animals and people, but not adults or witches, more likely kids, smoking dope or drinking, not casting workings. It should be added to your case CSM.”

I opened my laptop and checked the info, adding a circle around the GPS location, the same size as the others I had drawn. I toggled on the touch-screen application and, with my fingers, I adjusted the circles of overlapping territory. The new site fell within the circles of six of the companies I had already earmarked.

“How close is the nearest road?” Rick asked.

“About a quarter-mile hike if you go direct, but it’s brambles and mud,” Occam said. “Why do you ask?”

“Nell,” Rick asked, “are you up to taking a quick reading today, or do you want to wait another day?”

I pretended that my heart didn’t race and my breathing didn’t wrench painfully in my ribs, and covered by opening my salad and taking a sip of my drink. “How quick of a reading?”

“Just to see if it feels like the same energies you registered at the other site.”

It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t fool myself. My ability to read the land was the main reason PsyLED had wanted me, and Rick had said this case fell right into my skill set. “I can do that,” I said, keeping my tone level so that Tandy wouldn’t be affected by my fear spiking.

“I will go with you,” Paka said, her catty voice a low vibration. “In my cat form. As protection for you.” Paka had been born a black wereleopard, and I had seen her take down a full-grown man on two different occasions. She was feral and utterly without mercy or guilt. I had no doubt that she would make excellent physical protection.

“Who goes with me to cut me loose if the earth has other ideas than letting me go? That’s gonna require opposable thumbs and a sharp blade.”

“Me,” Occam said, his tone forbidding. It was clear he didn’t agree with me doing a reading so soon. Well, neither did I.

I didn’t look at him. I took a bite of salad and said, “The reading will have to be no longer than half an hour. Not deep enough to touch the sleeper consciousness. Call it a surface scan.” Then I added, “I’d hate to end up disabled my first week on the job.”

The table fell silent as the unit took that in, several pairs of eyes on my stitched and swollen hand. Which made me angry on some level. So far this had been a fun case to them. For me, not so much. I wanted them to remember that.

“She shouldn’t do a reading,” T. Laine said. “Not so soon.”

“I agree,” Tandy said.

“She must,” Paka said, her arm moving beneath the table, probably placing her hand on Rick’s knee.

I didn’t much like Paka, but she was right in this situation. “Rick needs to rule out if this is an accident or a deliberate working,” Thinking about our chat, I said, “That’s why he wants me to take another reading. Right?”

Rick frowned as if Paka’s touch was unwelcome, but he didn’t know how to dislodge it. A heartbeat or three too long later, he gave me a scant nod. It was my understanding that Paka had more magic than most werecats. She had been brought to the US by PAW (the Party of African Weres) and IAW (the International Association of Weres) to help Rick, the United States’ first black wereleopard, one changed against his will and left unable to shift because of magic tattooed into his skin. Also against his will. According to the scuttlebutt, Rick had been used and abused most of his life, but he was still standing. That said something about a man, even if he had broken Jane Yellowrock’s heart. He and Paka had—not fallen in love. That was too pale a thing for the magnetism between the two. More like they had been mated at first sight, Rick following her like steel to a magical magnet. Their relationship made a lot more sense now that I had heard the Spook School gossip than it had before. “I’m going too,” T. Laine said. “I know what she looks like when she’s too deep now. And I worked on a few things during the night that might get her back if something pulls her down against her will.” At my questioning look, she said, “Magical things. There’s a wyrd working called Break that severs energies in assault spells. I’ve been practicing.”

“Good,” Rick said. “Keep her safe.”

I nodded, uncertain about the efficacy of magic against plants sending roots into me, but any kind of backup was good.

JoJo, who had been keying in all the chitchat and decisions into the SODR—the start-of-day report—broke the somber mood with the words, “Attack of the plant people. Got it.”

Tandy glanced in her direction, an indication that he caught some emotional shift in her.

JoJo added, “Possibility of pranking philodendrons and sasanqua shenanigans.” No one laughed at her lame joke, and she looked around the table. “Tough room. Pass the red pepper flakes; this salad is bland and too sweet.”

* * *

We pulled over and parked on the side of a neighborhood road, large lots around us. Most of the small houses were unkempt, weeds tall and fall’s leaves unraked. There was the rare car up on blocks or buried in brush. A moldy and sun-faded RV listed at an angle. A pit bull on a chain, lying in the sun, watched us with a malevolent eye. Fewer of the houses were meticulously neat, with fall flowers in plantings and pots, the grass groomed. One had iron bars installed over the windows and a rebel flag flying.

I looked away from the passenger window and down at myself. I was wearing my field boots and a pair of jeans with a flannel shirt over a thin sweater. I was now officially out of clean clothes. I either needed a bigger gobag or I had to plan to leave clothes in the locker in the shower room. And I had to wash clothes tonight. And repack. I picked a cat-hair fuzz off my shirt and dropped it on the floor.

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