Home > Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(16)

Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(16)
Author: Faith Hunter

I put on the scant amount of makeup I allowed myself to wear. You can take the churchwoman out of the church but can’t take the church out of the churchwoman, at least not overnight. I dried my bobbed hair and gooped it up again. Not churchwoman-ish at all. I liked the look. It was funky. That’s what LaLa, my mentor at Spook School, had called it. Funky. Once I figured out it wasn’t a bad word, I went with it too. Mama was likely to have a hissy fit when she saw it. But that was a battle for another day.

Once I was presentable, breakfast fixings were out and warming, and the skillet had been moved to the hottest part of the stove, I got a pair of sharp scissors from my sewing kit and started removing the stitches from my arm and hand. As each one popped, a sensation of electric comfort zipped through me, and I caught myself sighing with pleasure by the time I finished. I stretched my fingers and relaxed fully for the first time in nearly two days.

The moment I felt a car on my road, I added oil to the heated fry pan and whisked the pancake batter. By the time Occam knocked on the door, I was dishing up the first stack of pancakes, and I shouted, “The door’s open!”

“Nell,” he said as he entered, censure in his tone, “I coulda been anybody. One’a your churchmen here to rape and kill. Most anything!”

“Nope,” I said, not letting him see my face as I poured more batter into the hot skillet. “I knew when your cute car started up the mountain. If you hadn’ta been you when you stepped onto the ground out front, I had plenty of time to get my gun and shoot you.” I put down the spatula and picked up the handgun on the cabinet, set it down again, and carried a pancake-laden plate to the table with a cup of strong coffee.

His eyebrows went up, his lips tightened, and he closed the door behind him. “You really know when someone drives onto your road?”

“Pretty much. Drives, walks, or slithers.” Ever since I fed Brother Ephraim to the wood, I had known with a far greater certainty. A small silver lining to the big black cloud of Ephraim.

“What’s that?” He nodded to the plate I had set on the table.

“Pancakes,” I said, as if he was stupid. “Have a seat.”

“You made me pancakes for my breakfast,” he said, his voice oddly toneless.

“Seemed a mite unhospitable to feed myself while you watched.” I flipped the second batch of pancakes over, and brought butter and syrup to the table.

Occam grabbed my hand, turning it over. His flesh was warm, like a fire burned directly beneath the surface. “You healed up right fast, Nell, sugar. Who took out your stitches?”

“I did,” I said, surprised. “Who else?”

“A doctor?” He said it like it should have been obvious.

I pulled my hand away and placed the syrup on the table. “Now, that would be a waste of time. Try the syrup.” I went back to the stove. “It’s real maple. I traded for it. Been thinking I could make my maple trees sap up on really cold winters. I’m kinda hoping we’ll have a cold one so’s I can try.”

Occam scowled at me. “You’re gonna make syrup? I hate to remind you, Nell, sugar, but you got yourself a job now. You have to work for a living, and time off is precious and scant.”

“I aim to try,” I said over my shoulder. “Old Man Hodgins on the church compound makes syrup after really cold winters. I thought I might apprentice out to him. The time is less than you might think. Mostly tapping the trees, then cooking the syrup, and both activities are done on Saturdays.” I flipped the pancakes out onto my plate and added more batter to the hot skillet.

I joined Occam at the long table. “You like?” Not that I really needed to ask the question. Occam’s plate was half-empty.

“I love.”

“Good.” I flashed him a smile and was startled to see his eyes on me, golden hints of his cat in them. I returned my gaze to my plate, suddenly uncomfortable at the presence of a man in my widder-woman house. It wasn’t appropriate or proper.

But Occam was a coworker and a friend. And I’d offered him hospitality.

I shut off the judgmental, condemning part of me, and continued. “You can’t tap a tree until it’s twelve inches in diameter, and you need in the neighborhood of thirty to fifty gallons of sap to evaporate down to one gallon of syrup. That’s why the real stuff is so expensive. I have plenty of maple trees bigger in diameter than twelve inches, and they could take a number of taps. Old Man Hodgins has a large-sized evaporator. The weather isn’t cold enough here to get really good sap, but this winter might be cold enough. It happens from time to time.” I stopped. I was babbling. Suddenly not wanting to look up into Occam’s eyes. So I ate.

When Occam’s plate was empty, I got up and brought the last batch of pancakes to him and finished off my own. Then I washed the dishes, cleaned the fry pan, and coated it with a layer of oil so it wouldn’t rust. I set the stove to cool burn with summer wood, refilled the water heater—a never-ending process—let the cats into the garden, and gathered my gear.

I felt Occam watching me with every move, and without knowing why, I never let myself look his way even after I gathered up my keys. Not knowing why I was so uncomfortable, I followed Occam to his car. I sat silent all the way into Knoxville, to PsyLED HQ.

When we got to HQ, we were met with an uproar. Our investigation into psysitopes had morphed overnight into something new. As of dawn, humans were now involved.

SIX

“We have three families, two on one street, one on the street just behind them,” Rick said. “Their houses form a triangle.” He pulled a street map up on the big screen, the three houses marked in red. The triangle was equilateral, all three sides equal.

“That,” T. Laine said, pointing, “fits into a witch working. All three internal angles are congruent to one another and are each sixty degrees. Simple, familiar Euclidean geometry, the first maths taught to witches to bind and control the power of the universe. Now we know for sure we’re dealing with witches.”

Something in that statement didn’t feel completely correct, but I kept my partial disagreement to myself. There had been a woman in the earth, a woman who was part of the energies, and yet, who wasn’t. Whether she was a witch or not, I hadn’t been able to tell, but if Unit Eighteen thought witch, then how was I going to prove her not? Worse, what if I was mistaken? I opened CSM-Nell on my laptop, and merged the new GPS coordinates to my own sat map. I drew a slow breath as I absorbed the potential meanings of the locations. In the background, I listened to the unit members discuss the psy-meter readings, the bizarre actions of the humans who had first come to the attention of KEMA, and the multiagency law enforcement involvement that was taking place as of dawn.

“The first family, at what we’re calling Point A”—Rick indicated the house with a laser pointer—“was reported by a guy on the way into work. Family of five, all in their yard, walking in a circle. In their nightclothes. Children not wearing shoes. The man buck naked. KEMA techs tested them without interfering and they redlined. Then local LEOs got another report, extended family of seven. That would be Point B. KEMA started driving around, looking for activity, and found the third one. We’re calling it Point C, also five adults, some from out of town, visiting. There haven’t been any other reports of suspicious activity. All three families redlined. KEMA set up privacy tents and cordoned off the houses and yards.

“The sheriff deputies are evacuating the nearby families,” JoJo said, pulling on three earrings in her left ear. It looked painful, but this wasn’t the first time I’d seen her pulling on her earrings. It was a tic, indicating she was mentally occupied and trying to draw correlations from insufficient evidence. “The Red Cross is involved. So are county services, offering support and advice.”

Rick leaned forward, his fingertips on the table, taking his weight, a lock of his black-as-midnight hair swinging forward over his forehead. He said, “Since this situation is clearly not contained, and since we don’t have a source or explanation for the paranormal activity, the DIC called in the FBI to assist. They are currently acquiring warrants for the houses.”

“Did they leave the people walking?” I asked. “In their yards? Undisturbed?”

“No. The victims are being taken to University of Tennessee Medical Center for isolation, testing, and treatment. How do you think this might be relevant to our part of the investigation, Nell?”

“I don’t know. How did they take it?” I asked. “The people, I mean. Being taken away.”

Rick referred to his notes on his tablet. “No one was responsive until paramedics attempted to remove them from the site where each was found, at which time violent psychosis resulted. As of the last report, all are medicated, on psychotropic meds; no one is coherent as to date, place, or time. Why?”

“I’m not sure. Are the remaining geese still swimming in a circle at the pond site?”

“The geese were swimming in a circle?” Rick asked.

“Yes. It’s in my report.” I shifted my own maps up onto the main screen, and added in a split screen one of the photos from the pond site. “We had two dead geese at the pond, here and here.” I pointed. “You can see the live geese, clearly swimming in a circle. The dead ones were not in the circle. While I was reading the land, a third goose died, and when it did, a line of energy attached it to the deeps.” I could see them watching me in my peripheral vision, could feel their interest, but I didn’t look up. I pulled up the shots of the accident site where the truck driver had hit the deer. “Were the deer walking in a circle before they were hit and scattered all over by the impacts?”

Rick nodded yes.

“And there are the houses in a triangle with people walking in circles.

“Hmm,” I said. “If you look, the three sites for each of the redlining activity—pond geese, deer origination site, and humans, form a second triangle, much bigger. And all the affected beings and creatures were moving in circles. So . . . what if there’s a wider circle on the outer limit?” I made a blue circle on the map, one that used the three triangle points to define the circumference.

T. Laine sucked in a breath I could hear in the sudden silence. Despite the fact that the woman in the deeps hadn’t been proven to be a witch, we had just discovered complicated witch magic geometries. A working of the highest order.

I went on. “Rick said that there was no way witches set up a working this large. So I started searching for companies that might have been involved in energy research, maybe something using tech to expand a magical working. Specifically paranormal energy research or research into how magic works. Maybe for weaponization. I started out with a simple five-mile diameter from each site. No reason for the five miles,” I added. “I had to start somewhere.

“Using the first two sites, I narrowed down the possibilities of companies that might have made a mistake with some kind of paranormal energy and I came up with more than twenty, initially. Now, using the same five-mile-diameter circles, I can eliminate most of the companies. And that leaves six, all of them in the general area of the center of the triangle and proposed witch circle made by the three sites of the disturbances.” I punched the names up on the screen.

   
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