Home > Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(5)

Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(5)
Author: Faith Hunter

I shooed the cats out onto the back screened porch, into the dark. They didn’t like being out so early, and Torquil hissed his displeasure, following me to the driveway. As I reached the truck I said, “Watch out for the hawks and the foxes. Kill a couple of voles, okay? Kibble when I get home tonight.” Giving me a prolonged vocalization, he slid into the shadows.

Within half an hour of waking, I pulled out of the drive onto the road to Knoxville, the address of the new offices of PsyLED Unit Eighteen entered into my cell phone’s GPS. Behind me, the woods seemed to sigh with the coming dawn, the sound of owl giving way to hawk, deer prancing across the road in front of me, a six-point buck and two does. A juvenile fox darting in front of me, skulking after the deer, eyes and hunger bigger than his size or abilities.

I took the unlit dirt-and-gravel road down and around the low mountains, or high hills, winding my way toward the Tennessee Valley and Knoxville. Around me, the night grew lighter, a gray-on-charcoal-on-midnight tone that said day was near.

The road merged into a two-lane blacktop tertiary county road and then into a state road. By seven, light was coming over the horizon, and I stopped at a McDonald’s for a special-order bacon, egg, and cheese on a bun. With mustard. And a coffee. I could have eaten homemade granola cereal at home. It might have been stale, but it would have been cheaper. But . . . I shook my head. I was clearly not the same person I had been.

* * *

The new offices of PsyLED Knoxville were on Allamena Avenue, a new road on a patch of newly developed land off Highway 62, the building ugly as only a government building can be, three stories with the two top levels set aside for PsyLED and for an eventual PsyCSI, whenever the government got around to fully funding the agency. The bottom floor was a deli and a coffee shop. There were no signs to indicate that I was at the right place, but I recognized the oversized SUV from the night before and parked near it. The second-floor lights were on. An unmarked door separated Yoshi’s Deli and Coffee’s On, with an inconspicuous keypad at the side and a very conspicuous, roving surveillance camera over the door. The security system looked high-end. PsyLED had spared little expense so far.

I hauled my gear, including the witchy cuffs, the zip bag of lightweight, silver-toned pens, and the heavy containment vessel that I had forgotten to give Rick last night, to the door, keyed in the code, and climbed the narrow stairs to another door at the top. There was a keypad there too, but this door didn’t respond to my code, so I ran my ID card through the slot and the door snicked open.

The smell of coffee and donuts and stale pizza brought a smile to my face. They might have a fancy new office space with all the electronic bells and whistles that taxpayer money was willing to buy, but the unit was still the unit.

I walked through the door, which automatically latched and sealed after me, and JoJo pointed out an empty office cubicle by holding out a piece of pizza while talking on speaker on one cell, tapping out a text on another cell, and scanning a file on her laptop, all at once. Multitasking. Not my best skill set, unless it involved plants or farming.

My office space was really a low stall with padded, five-foot-tall half walls, a desk, and two chairs, both looking hard and unforgiving. The government was determined to provide the best of everything except comfort for the employees, not that I cared about comfort. I had a window! It was narrow and faced west, which wasn’t the best light, but I could bring plants to work. The dawn light coming through the pane made me want to dance—not that I danced. Not ever. Even the thought made me sick to my stomach. Churchwomen didn’t dance. And I’d look like a cross between a kangaroo, a giraffe, and a platypus. Stupid and clumsy and . . . stupid. But I had a window!

I placed the witchy cuffs, pens, and containment vessel on the desk along with my laptop and sealed my weapon into a small gun safe set into my desk, resetting the code to something I could remember easily, but wasn’t something anyone else would ever deduce. I put my four-day gobag in the bottom desk drawer and keyed the lock with the keys I found in the middle desk drawer. I inserted one key into my wallet and the other one into the fake plastic tree in the corner. It was a stupid hiding place, and there were probably rules about that kind of thing, but I could move it later as needed.

That hadn’t taken long. Everything was in place. My hands were empty. I made one more quick trip to the truck for the box of small handheld psy-meter 1.0s. The newbie/probie had no idea what to do next. Fortunately or not, Rick strode by, looking a lot fresher than only hours before, and waved me to the other side of the building. He was talking on a cell too, and I pocketed my own cell, grabbed up my laptop, the psy-meters, the heavy containment vessel, and followed.

We passed a cleaning closet, a safe room, and a null room—a spelled, sealed room where witches could be held, unable to use their own powers. The room’s witchy tech was brand-new; I had heard about it at Spook School. The room was set up so that T. Laine, or anyone else who knew the code, could get in or out. The null room could be used as an interrogation room for magical creatures or a safe room for humans, preventing a takeover attempt by magic users, but once locked inside, it was as if there was no magic. A faint sense of electricity skittered across my flesh as we passed, unpleasant and scratchy.

The conference room was not nearly so comfortable as the hotels where we had met when I was just a consultant. No couches, no slouchy chairs. The décor was totally unlike the colorful offices of TV and film cop shops, and was decorated in beige, gray, brown, and charcoal, dull but serviceable. A sleek, fake wood–and-metal table took up most of the space and more of the uncomfortable-looking chairs ringed it, quickly being filled with unit members. A series of wide video screens were on one wall.

I dropped the box of witchy cuffs and the baggie of pens in front of T. Laine, who made a soft squeal of pleasure. She signed the D&R—delivery and release—forms and slid them to the boss faster than I could set the containment vessel and the box of small psy-meters in front of him. Rick grunted in recognition, and I placed the multiple D&R papers on the desk in front of him too, placing a pen in his hand for his signatures. He grunted again, this time in irritation, but he accepted the pen. As he signed, he ended the call and said, “Problem, people.

“Two of the geese that read high on the psy-meter are dead at the pond site. No visible signs of COD. We need to acquire these geese for necropsy by a veterinary pathologist and see if they’re redlining. Our main area of concern is to make certain that the . . . for now, I’m calling it psysitopic contamination . . . stops its spread. Whatever spell or working or creature caused the paranormal readings, it may be ongoing. JoJo?”

JoJo opened a satellite map on the wide screen on the wall of the conference room. “Just before sunset last night,” she said, “the county isolated a herd of psysitope-positive deer. They were nowhere near the pond. They were standing in the middle of the road when a delivery truck came around a sharp turn and hit several. Couldn’t stop. Killed three. Injured two. Four more just watched the members of the herd die. They were walking in a circle, like they were drugged. Didn’t even run when the deputies shot the injured deer. They ordered tox screens on them, but after the geese incident, the deputies called for psy-meter readings too. As Rick said, we need to find the source of the paranormal activity causing this and contain it. Then we need to figure out how the magic is spreading and put a stop to that too.”

“That’s not the way magic works,” T. Laine said. “It doesn’t just spread, like an airborne disease. It can’t get into the groundwater. It can’t spread by touch. It has to be formed and ordered and shaped. It isn’t amorphous or contagious, despite what a lot of hardline, witch-hating right-wingers say.”

“Okay,” Rick said. “Then we need to find the people who are setting workings loose and stop them. Which is why you take lead on this one, Lainie. You and Nell and the psy-meter 2.0.”

T. Laine said, “Plugging in the two locations now. But I have to say, again, this is not the way magic works. At all.”

“Noted. Check it out.” Pea jumped on the big conference room table and then off onto the floor to disappear. Catlike.

I had a much higher, upgraded security clearance than I’d had as a consultant, though not as high as the other team members. As a probie, I’d be taking orders, getting coffee, and doing paperwork. And reading the land. I went to the new coffeemaker and started a second pot, remembering the first time I saw such a device and had to figure out how to make it work. This time, I found Rick’s special French dark roast Community Coffee and started a pot, as if I had done it all my life. Then I poured coffee for all the unit members while they discussed possibilities of creatures and events that might cause the readings. When I reached Occam’s cup, he said, “Nell, sugar. Whatchu doing? Waiting on us?”

I pointed a finger at my chest and said, “Probie. Lowest on the totem pole. Paper pusher and waitress. At least for a while.”

“Nell,” T. Laine said, with a half smile on her face, teasing. “Make mine to go, milk and sugar.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, pouring us both to-go coffees in metal mugs. “Ummm. Weapons?”

“Special agents do not say ummm. Service sidearms should be sufficient,” Rick said. “If you find animals that need to be euthanized, call the sheriff’s office or animal control. I’m assigning the handheld psy-meters. Record the model and serial numbers and enter them on the paperwork that will be on your desks when you return. You’re responsible for them. Take care, people.”

I grabbed my coat, a small handheld P 1.0, my laptop, the new psy-meter 2.0, and my service weapon, and followed T. Laine out the door, down the steps, into the day. I got my small everyday gobag out of the Chevy.

“Good God, girl. You still driving that old truck? We’ll take my car.” T. Laine took the passenger seat of a white Ford Escape. “You can drive a normal car, right?” She waved a key fob at me. “I’ve got paperwork to do and I always wanted a driver.”

I stowed my gear in the back and started the SUV with the push-button start. This was a bottom-of-the-line Escape and had no rearview camera and no electronic upgrades, which relieved me. When I first got the money for John’s shotgun, I test-drove a brand-new Escape and was intimidated by the electronics. This one was okay. I adjusted the seat and rearview before driving into the early-morning rush-hour traffic. “I can manage,” I said mildly, merging into the flow of vehicles. I had passed the aggressive driving course at Spook School, and it wasn’t for the faint of heart.

“Good. Rick can assign you a government-owned vehicle for field use. You can’t drive it for personal use, but it’ll be better than that truck on city streets.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I liked my truck. I could haul all sorts of things in the bed. But she had a point about work-related city-street driving. Maybe a small coupe would be better, one with a trunk for locking away my weapons and electronic equipment.

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