Home > Flame in the Dark (Soulwood #3)

Flame in the Dark (Soulwood #3)
Author: Faith Hunter


I walked the length of Turtle Point Lane near Jones Cove, my tactical flash illuminating the street and the ditch, trying to keep my eyes off the lawn and runnel of water and mature trees to the side. I should be in the trees, not here in the street, wasting my gifts on asphalt. I hated asphalt. To my touch, it was cold and dead and it stank of tar and gasoline.

But the K9 teams had dibs on the grass and were already in the backyard, the mundane tracker dog and the paranormal tracker dog, with their handlers, and lights so bright they hurt my eyes when I looked that way. As a paranormal investigator, I had to wait until the human and canine investigators were finished, so my scent didn’t confuse the Para-K9s. Standard operating procedure and forensic protocol. But that didn’t mean I had to like it.

Armed special weapons and tactics team—SWAT—officers, on loan from the city, patrolled the boundaries of the grounds, dressed in tactical gear and toting automatic rifles. Knoxville’s rural/metro fire department patrolled inside the house along with uniformed cops, suited detectives, and federal and state agents in this multiagency emergency investigation.

The PsyLED SAC—special agent in charge of Unit Eighteen, and my boss—had put me to work on menial stuff to keep me off the grass and out of the way until the dogs were completely done. As a probationary agent, I did what I was told. Most of the time.

My steps were slow and deliberate, my eyes taking in everything. Crushed cigarette butts stained by yesterday’s rain, soggy leaves, broken auto safety glass in tiny pellets, flattened aluminum cans in the brush and a depression: an energy drink and a lite beer. A gum box. Nothing new, from the last twenty-four hours. I was surprised at the amount of detritus on a street with such upmarket houses. Maybe the county had no street sweeper machine, or maybe the worst of the filth ended up hidden in the weeds, hard to see, making the street appear cleaner than it really was. Life was like that too, with lots of secrets hidden from sight.

I had already searched the entire street with the psy-meter 2.0, and put the bulky device in the truck. There were no odd levels of paranormal energies anywhere. A small spike on level four at the edge of the drive, but it went away. An anomaly. The psy-meter 2.0 measured four different kinds of paranormal energies called psysitopes, and the patterns could indicate a were-creature, a witch, an arcenciel, and even Welsh gwyllgi—shape-shifting devil dogs. I had nothing yet, but I needed onto the lawn to do a proper reading. I’d get my wish. Eventually.

I searched the area around a Lexus. Then a short row of BMWs. I took photos of each vehicle plate and sent them to JoJo, Unit Eighteen’s second in command and best IT person, to cross-check the plate numbers with the guest list. The air was frigid and I was frozen, even though I was wearing long underwear, flannel-lined slacks, layered T-shirts, a heavy jacket, wool socks, and field boots. But then, along with uniformed county officers, I’d been at the grounds search for two hours, since the midnight call yanked me out of my nice warm bed and onto the job at a PsyLED crime scene. Field examination was scut work, the bane of all probie special agents, and we had found nothing on the street or driveway that might relate to the crime at the überfancy house on a cove of the Tennessee River.

To make me more miserable, because I had drunk down a half gallon of strong coffee, I had to use the ladies’, pretty desperately. I stared at the Holloways’ house, trying to figure out what to do.

“I just went to the back door and knocked,” a voice said.

I whirled. I’d been so intent that I hadn’t heard her walk up. A young female sheriff’s deputy grinned at me. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.

“Oh. It’s okay.” But it wasn’t. I was jumpy and ill at ease for reasons I didn’t understand. There were woods with fairly mature trees all around, water in the cove nearby, and well-maintained lawns the length of the street, all full of life that should have made me feel at home. Instead I was jumpy. All that coffee maybe. “I’m Nell. Special Agent Ingram.” I put out my hand and the woman shook it, businesslike.

“You don’t remember me,” she said, “but we met at the hospital during the outbreak of the slime molds back a few weeks. You gave me your keys and let my partner and me get unis out of your vehicle. I never got the chance to thank you. May Ree Holler, and my partner, Chris Skeeter.” She pointed to a taller, skinny man up the road.

“Your mother escaped from God’s Cloud of Glory Church, like I did,” I said, referring to the polygamous church I grew up in. “I remember. Her name was Carla, right?”

May Ree grinned at me, seeming happy that I remembered. “That’s my mama. Hard as nails and twice as strong.” She indicated the dark all around. “Us females always get it the worst on these jobs. The male deputies can just go in the woods, but it isn’t so easy for women. The caterer let me in to use the bathroom. Even gave me a pastry.” May Ree was short and sturdy with a freckled face, brown hair, and wearing her uniform tight, showing off curves. She had a self-assuredness I would never achieve. Her hair was cropped short for safety in close-combat situations, but her lips were full and scarlet in the reflected glare from my flash, and she was fully made up with mascara and blush, even at the ungodly hour. “Go on. And if they offer you something to eat, bring me another one of those pink iced squares. I missed supper.”

“I will. Thanks,” I said. If I couldn’t get her one I’d give her a snack from my truck when I came back out, presuming the bread wasn’t frozen. Still moving my flash back and forth, covering my square yard with each pass, I walked from the street, up the drive, and to the back door, where I snapped off the light. I thought about knocking, but I had learned it was easier to apologize than to get permission. Not a lesson I had learned at the church where I was raised, but one I had learned since coming to work with PsyLED. I might get fussed at or written up, but no one would punish me for an infraction, like the churchmen did to the churchwomen.

Opening the door, I slid the flash into its sheath and stepped inside. The warmth and the smell of coffee hit me like a fist. I unbuttoned my jacket so my badge would show and blinked into the warmth. My frozen face felt as if it might melt and slide off onto the marble tile floor. I breathed for a few moments and tried to unclench my fingers. My skin ached. My teeth hurt.

The arctic front had no regard for global warming. It had hit, decided it liked the Tennessee Valley, and decided to stay. This was the second week of frigid temps. Snow I liked. This, not at all.

Once the worst of the personal melting was done, I looked around. The kitchen was empty, a room constructed of stone in various shades of gray on the floor and the cabinet tops and the backsplash. The owners must have taken down a whole mountain to get this much polished rock. The ceiling was vaulted with whitish wooden rafters and joists. Cabinets with the same kind of treated whitish wood rose ten feet high. A ladder that slid on a bronze rail was in the corner. The stove was gas with ten burners and a copper faucet over the stovetops, which looked handy unless one had a grease fire and thought to use water to put it out. There was a commercial-sized coffeemaker with a huge pot half-full, two big, double-glass-door refrigerators, and a separate massive two-door freezer. I spotted the small powder room off the kitchen and raced into it before anyone could come in and tell me to get outside and use the trees.

I was one of maybe twenty-five law enforcement officers and investigators from the various law enforcement branches and agencies called in to the shooting at the Holloway home. The FBI was here to rule out terrorism because a U.S. senator had been at the private political fund-raiser when the shooting started.

PsyLED—the Psychometry Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security—was here because a vampire had been on-site too. The fire department was here because there had been a small fire. The local sheriff’s LEOs were here because it was their jurisdiction.

Crime scene investigators were here because there were three dead bodies on the premises, though not the senator—he was shaken up but fine. The grounds search was because the shooter had come and gone on foot. It was complicated. But dead and wounded VIPs meant a lot of police presence and a shooting to solve, especially since the shooter got away clean.

When I came back out, the kitchen was still empty and I decided a bit more of the “ask permission later” was called for. Most anything was better than going back outside to search the road and paved areas for clues into a crime I had not been informed about. Two automatic dishwashers were running softly. The pastries were taped under waxed paper, including little pink iced squares. May Ree would be disappointed. There were four ovens, and all but one was still warm to the touch. I inspected the planters under the windows. At first glance they appeared to be full of herbs—basil, rosemary, thyme, and lemongrass—but the leaves were silk. Which was weird in a kitchen that looked as if someone loved to cook.

Trying to look as if I belonged, I wandered through a butler’s pantry, complete with coffee bar, wet bar with dozens of decanters and bottles, and wine in a floor-to-ceiling special refrigerator. Beyond the butler’s pantry, stairs went up on one side and down on the other, proving that the house had multiple levels, not just the two obvious from the outside. Picking up on the smell of smoke and scorched furnishings was easy here.

I stayed on the main level and meandered into a formal dining room on one side of the entry. There was more stone here too, and wood in the vaulted ceilings. The twelve-foot-long dining table was set for a party, though I didn’t recognize any of the food except the whole salmon and the tenderloin of beef. It seemed a shame to let the food go to waste when May Ree was hungry, but there was blood on the floor in the doorway, leading from the back of the house to here. Since there was blood, the food itself might be evidence, so I kept my hands to myself and stepped carefully.

I had seen EMS units racing away as I drove up, so I knew there had been casualties, but seeing blood was unsettling. My gift rose up inside me, as if it was curious. Not trying to drink the blood down, not yet, because I wasn’t outside, my hands buried in the earth, but more like a mouser cat who sees movement and crouches, trying to decide if this is something worth hunting.

A formal living room decorated with a Christmas tree and presents and fake electric candles in the windows was on the other side of the entry. It had real wood floors and a ten-foot ceiling with one of those frame things set in the middle to give it even more height. Maybe called a tray ceiling; I wasn’t sure. Life in the church hadn’t prepared me with a good grasp of architectural terminology. The entire room felt stiff and uncomfortable to me, maybe due to the fact that all the plants were fake. Fancy tables, tassels on heavy drapes, carved lamps, furniture that looked showroom-fresh. This wasn’t a place to kick up your feet.

The room was full of people in fancy dress, and oddly, I knew two of them, Ming of Glass, the vampire Master of the City, and her bodyguard, a vamp I knew only as Yummy. Yummy flashed me a grin, one without fangs, which was nice, but she mouthed, Opossum, at me, which was a tease I didn’t really need. I mouthed back, Ha-ha. Not. Yummy laughed.

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