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Despite my best intentions, I was running about ten minutes late for my meeting with Jason. He’d been at the dig site checking for new information while I was checking out the Bradens’ house, but I suspected the darkening clouds and increasing winds had shut them down early. I scanned the booths along the wall of the coffee shop looking for Jason’s blond head as I automatically headed for the booth on the far-back end of the L-shaped row. I found him there, back to the wall as usual.
He grinned up at me. We’d discovered the Brier Inn shortly after we started this assignment, and it quickly became one of our favorite places. It’s comfortable, plus it has good line of sight. You can see almost the entire dining area from the back booth. The food is good, the staff friendly, and the service quick. It always makes me feel like I’ve come home. Which in a lot of ways I have. I grew up in Dallas, and started my undergraduate degree at what was then North Texas State, and is now the University of North Texas, but the whole family moved to Boston after my brother died. The diner has moved since then. Progress took the old location, but the atmosphere and the food are as good as ever.
“Hey, Jase,” I said as I slid into the booth and picked up the waiting glass of frosty goodness.
“I ordered you a frozen mocha and a hot steak,” he said. “I know where your priorities lie.”
“Always,” I said, returning his grin. “Coffee first, then we save the world.” I sat back and took a long pull on my mocha. The caffeine rolled through me, and I relaxed. I enjoy working with Jason–now. When we first became partners, he was another of those men who underestimated me because I’m small and look young.
It was touch and go at first. We went several rounds in the gym before he was willing to accept me as an equal. After that, he trusted me to watch his back, and I could trust him to watch mine. Of equal importance, with Jason around, I never have to worry about taking the job, or myself, too seriously. I’ve seen agents who put that kind of pressure on themselves. They don’t last long.
“What’s up at the dig?” I asked.
“Been pretty quiet so far,” he said. “The biggest excitement is what happened yesterday at the Bradens’ home, but if the student diggers know anything about it, they’re not talking. I did find out that Barb, the finds assistant, has a major crush on John Braden, and Uli, the guy from Germany, plays piano beautifully,” he said, grinning.
“I’m sure that will be helpful when we, uh, want to serenade the bad guys into a false sense of security?”
The grin turned to a smile, flashing the two ever-so-slightly crooked front teeth that kept his smile from being perfect and gave it character. “Exactly what I thought.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. His silliness made me feel somewhat better, and his lack of success took some of the sting out of my own morning’s failure.
“I talked to the rest of the grad students this morning. Rena and Peter hadn’t shown by the time I left, so they still look like our best shot for someone who might know something more than was on the news. Neither of them said much last night, but this is the first dig in this area for both of them, so they don’t know many people and may not feel comfortable sharing their theories. I’ll talk to them when I get back, but we can’t rule out the possibility that they may have seen or heard something they don’t understand.”
“Yeah, that seems more likely than them actually being involved,” I said. “What else?”
“The main team just finished dividing the area into grids. They’re letting us watch to see how it’s done, and we get to talk to the onlookers, but most of the real work for us won’t start until after finals.
“The only holdovers from the Peru dig are the archaeologist, Nick Manuelito, who came back with them to help catalog the artifacts. He claims he couldn’t resist the lure of this dig since he was already here. Then there’s the anthropologist, Danny Roget. He’s from UNT, and a couple of the diggers also worked the Peru dig, Malcolm Sunday and Sherry Wharton. Everyone else is new. What did you find at the Bradens’?”
“A knife with poison spells on it, in the hands of an intruder who got away, and Mena’s laptop. I’ll need to take the knife by the lab when we get to the office. Oh, and by the way, Cameron Delaney is ‘Were.’ ”
“Really? Imagine that.” Demons are also considered a human species, and I knew Jason had been raised with many of the same beliefs I had, but he had worked with Weres in the past, so I wanted his input. He paused and just looked at me, waiting.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” I said. “And I can’t sense anything from him. It’s like he’s a blank space in the ether.” I didn’t go into my reaction to Cam. Denial is a wonderful tool. If I ignored it long enough, surely it would go away. Yeah, right.
“I haven’t had any problem working with Weres before. All we can do is hope for the best,” he said and shrugged.
It wasn’t the informative reaction I’d hoped for, or the negative reaction I’d expected, but the fact it apparently didn’t bother him made me feel better about my decision to leave the laptop with him. “I told him we’d wait a couple of days to report the laptop and let his people try to crack Mena’s password.”
I could feel his interest rise, and since the spelled knife came as no surprise to either of us at this point, I figured his interest was focused on why we were waiting to report the laptop. He quirked an eyebrow at me and confirmed my suspicions. “Wait?” Jason was never a stickler for rules, but he was always curious. “This sounds interesting. Want to fill me in?”
I focused my attention on my coffee for a moment while I sorted through my reasons for leaving the laptop. I looked back up at Jason. “Cerberus has someone on it, and since Mena worked for them, it seems only fair to let them have the first shot at cracking the password. I know how I’d feel if someone tried to take over after one of my people had been killed.”
I couldn’t quite look him in the eyes. Jason was one of the few people who knew what had happened to my brother, but I knew there was more to my reason than just that. Why I was inclined to trust him was something I couldn’t put my finger on, especially given I couldn’t read him, but there it was. “Since they knew her better than we did, they’re more likely to recognize something if they find it.”
The storm hit just as the waitress brought our lunch, and I paused while she sat the plates down in front of us. May storms are often vicious, but usually brief. Hopefully, it would begin to play itself out before we got on the road to Dallas.
As I cut into my hot steak, it occurred to me that the other factor in my reasoning, the one that both of us knew, was that we’d probably get the information faster from Cerberus. The agency gave us the information the Powers That Be decided we needed, when they decided we needed it. To put it bluntly, most of the time we were flying blind. Purely from a bureaucratic standpoint, any information on the laptop could take weeks, or even months, to get back to us, plenty long enough to get us killed.
“Okay, that’s the plan, then,” Jason said when the waitress left. He took out a small notebook and began flipping pages. “So, what do we tell them?”
“Have we been able to verify any of the information in the case file?” I asked. Lightning flashed outside and I jumped, almost spilling my coffee.
Jason grinned at me. “Not much.” He found the page he wanted, laid the notebook down on the table, and used his pen to check off the facts while we ate. “The Bradens reported the spade missing in December when the shipment arrived from Peru, and no one seems to be able to find any trace of its existence. The Bradens swear it was in the shipment, and on the manifest, when it left Peru. The Peruvian official who was in charge of the shipment until it left there agrees with this assessment and swears it was on the shipping manifest. However, they now can’t locate it on their manifest either. In other words, other than the logbooks from the dig, there’s no real proof that the spade ever existed and, of course, none at all that it’s a power object.
“The phone calls started in January, but until two days ago, that’s all they were, threats, one threat a month, and each call from a different disposable cell phone, so no one could trace them. Two days ago, someone broke into the Bradens’ house, killed an experienced security agent, and presumably would have kidnapped Keesha Braden if you, and the dog, hadn’t come in when you did.” He looked down at his lunch. “Unless you have something to add, I’m afraid that about sums it up.”
“That’s it? What about the Bradens’ suspected involvement in the theft? You mean between us we haven’t been able to verify any of the incidents that led to that theory?”
“Not yet,” he said. “The only solid evidence we have that the Bradens might be involved is the kidnap threats. Someone thinks they have it.”
“So, the question is, why? From everything I’ve seen at the Bradens’ house, they’re exactly what they appear to be. I’ve talked to the Cerberus people, and unless they find something on Mena’s laptop, we have nothing to substantiate the idea that they know anything about the theft.”
Jason gave a half shrug. “The file indicates that artifacts have gone missing from their digs before, but again, I can’t find anyone who can verify that. Giles says the file came down through channels from somewhere in the upper echelon of HSS, and he doesn’t know who originally created it. As usual, HSS doesn’t care to share that information. If this is a pattern, someone should know something, but no one seems to. All we can do is keep digging.”
“Great,” I said as we dug out money for the bill. “Questions we got, answers not so many. I guess that leaves us with the facts of the murder as we have them, and what little description I can give them about the intruder at the house this morning. Giles probably already has a copy of the police report, so I’m sure he knows more than we do.”
You’ve got to love Texas weather. You don’t have to, but you might as well. The storm had blown itself out by the time we left, and the sun was out. However, it was still raining. We took Jason’s car and left mine at the diner as we headed south on I35. Southbound traffic moves pretty well after rush hour, so in spite of the rain, which we drove out of ten miles down the road, we were at the DUE offices in downtown Dallas forty-five minutes later.
Alice Watson, a thin middle-aged woman with mouse-brown hair and large round-framed glasses, who had been Giles’ secretary ever since he was promoted, told us he was on the phone, so we took the knife down to the lab.
That gave us a chance to stop by R&D to check out the cool toys they’d developed and that DUE seldom got to use. R&D has a cool flying platform gadget that I’d pay money to take for a spin. I could probably get Jason to fly me around, at least to the limit of his kinetic range, but it’s not the same as being in control of when and where you fly. The jetpacks are sweet too, but we don’t get to use them either. To be fair, most HSS agents don’t get to use them, but the PTBs are more than a little stingy when it comes to outfitting DUE. They did have a new motion detector that will phone you if someone breaks into the house, and we were able to snag one of those, but otherwise, we were empty-handed when my pager went off half an hour later.
We headed back upstairs, where Alice ushered us into Giles’ standard-issue office. Other than a picture of his wife and daughter on his desk, he hadn’t done much in the way of decorating. The art on the walls looked like it had come with the office, but his wife, Marie, who was also one of my best friends, had insisted he have some plants to liven the place up. That was the only progress she’d been able to make on making his office seem a little cozier. Giles wasn’t all that excited about having a desk job, although he was an excellent team leader. I think it was his way of denying that he wasn’t in the field any longer. Once the kids came, he and Marie had both retired from fieldwork.
Giles looked up from the file he was reading as we walked in and waved us toward the two chairs in front of his desk. With sandy blond hair, going to gray at the temples, Giles looks more like a librarian than a DUE agent, but he had once been one of the deadliest DUE operatives in history. He also has the best shields I’ve ever seen. All I’ve ever been able to feel from Giles is his shields. It’s like he has his own little cone of silence on the psi-plane.
He was reading the Braden file, and I could see a sticky note stuck to the outside of the folder that said “Intruder, 5/25, 11:00 AM.” As I’d expected, he had more information on the events of the last two days than either Jason or I would have been able to get from the police. He handed us copies of the file as we sat down. The pictures taken in the nursery immediately after Mena’s death showed far less destruction to the room than I’d seen, so today’s intruder had done most of the damage I’d seen this morning. Those pictures weren’t included in the folders; probably hadn’t even been downloaded yet.
“This should bring you up to speed on what the police have,” Giles said as we looked over the information.
“The bullet that killed Mena was silver,” he added. Jason and I both stopped browsing the folders and looked up at him.
“Cam Delaney is ‘Were,’” I said. “Was Mena?”
When Giles looked at me, it occurred to me that I was glad I wasn’t playing poker with him. His face gave away nothing.
“Not that we know of,” he said with a little shake of his head, “and so far, all indications are that the Bradens are also human.”
My bombshell obviously came as no surprise to him, so I let it pass. I still wasn’t happy about it, but no matter how callous the department was about agent safety, they wouldn’t endanger civilians. Beyond that, I trusted Giles not to withhold information that could get us killed. Unfortunately, he was the only one in management that applied to.
“Well, it looks like that and the spelled knife the intruder threw at me this morning pretty much eliminate the greed as motivation theory,” I said. “That leaves us with someone who wants to raise the dead, someone who wants to become immortal, or both.”
“Immortality’s got to be primary,” Giles said. “Otherwise, they’d just hire a necromancer.”
“True, but nothing says they won’t do both,” I said. “There’s nothing quite like having your own little undead army to kick off eternal life with a bang.”
“That brings us back to the original question about the Bradens and adds another layer,” Jason said. “Who, or what, are they?” They both turned to me.
I took a deep breath. There wasn’t a lot I could add. “They’re not at home much, but the household structure seems perfectly normal. They smell human, and all I sense from either of them is the same emotions and fears as every other person on the planet. They have an extra edge of fear brought on by the kidnapping threats, but based on everything I can sense about them, it’s simply a perfectly normal reaction to having your child threatened. I get no sense of otherness from either of the Drs. Braden, or from Keesha. I did talk to Gina, the cook, this morning, and she definitely thinks there’s something supernatural about the whole thing, but Mena said Gina’s grandmother was a strega, so her first thought is of the supernatural. Do we have background information about her?”
“Just the basics,” Giles said. “She’s been with John Braden for fifteen years. He was on a dig site in Italy and hired her to cook for them. She’s been with him ever since. He covered all the costs to relocate her family to the US. She’s never been in any sort of trouble, so I doubt that verification went further than a couple of levels. I’ll have research dig deeper.”
“We have another problem,” Jason said. “We’ve been unable to find a single person who knows anything about items missing from previous dig sites, yet it says plainly in the folder that the Bradens were suspected in the other incidents. It sounds like someone is trying to set them up, but again, we run into that wall of whys. Is there something you’re not telling us?”
Giles looked thoughtful. “Not that I’m aware of, but some days that doesn’t mean much. If the Peruvian government wasn’t involved, I’m not sure we’d have this case at all. Standard operating procedure for the PTBs is to yell when a case has gone on this long. This time, their focus is on keeping it quiet.”
“What are you saying, Giles?” Jason didn’t look up from the file as he asked.
“I’m not saying anything. I’m just telling you to be careful, and watch your backs.”
“We’ll definitely do that,” I said as we got up to leave. “Anything else?”
“Not a thing, but if I get any new information, I’ll give you a call.”
We waited until we were back in the car before saying anything more about the case.
“You think Giles knows more than he’s telling?” Jason backed out of the parking place and pulled out of the garage.
“Probably,” I said, “but at least with Giles, what he’s not telling probably won’t get us killed.”
“Good point,” Jason replied. “Where to?”
“Why don’t we check out the dig site?” The weather had cleared, so the Bradens and the rest of the crew would be back working.
Jason headed back across downtown to pick up I35, the highway that would take us to Lake Dallas and the dig site. Northbound traffic, even at midday, is the pits in Dallas, so it took us over an hour to make a thirty-mile drive. As we pulled in, I used a clip to secure my hair up off my neck and keep it out of my face.
Now that the semester was nearly over, activity at the site was moving into high gear. Small clusters of students were scattered over the site, receiving instructions from the diggers and professors. We joined the group clustered around the second archaeologist on the dig, Nick Manuelito. He was going over procedures for digging and for handling finds.
I recognized several of the students and professors from my classes. Dr. Roget, who was the anthropologist on the dig, and Dr. Gooding, who was the geologist, had both taught classes we’d taken during the semester. Several of the student diggers had been in those classes and now formed clusters around the two professors, further out on the dig site.
Once the briefing closest to us was over, Jason and I walked up to the tall, dark, and gorgeous professor from Peru who was talking with Professor Glen Jackson, the head of the archaeology department. I’d seen him around the Lake Dallas dig site, and early in the semester I’d met him when he spoke about creation myths and the artifacts associated with them. He was neither imposing nor impressive. Short, thin, and gray-haired with wire-rimmed glasses, he really looked more like an accountant than anything else.
“Riley, I want you to meet Dr. Nick Manuelito, and, of course, you know Professor Jackson,” Jason said.
“Please, call me Nick,” the taller man said, flashing a perfect smile. In front of his shields, his emotions were all good will, and I didn’t need empathy to tell that he was intentionally projecting. However, intentional or not, it was obvious why he was good to have on-site. Curiosity seekers and media types would just love him.
“Riley,” I said, holding out my hand. He was take-your-breath-away handsome. His jeans and tan T-shirt certainly fit him to a tee, pun intended, but if I had held out any hope that the dry spell I’d been going through had caused my reaction to Cam, that hope was dashed. As attractive as Nick was, my heart rate stayed resolutely steady.
“Riley just took one of Dr. Braden’s classes, and I’m trying to talk her into working with us some this summer,” Jason said. It was the first I’d heard about me working the dig site, but hey, if this was what the scenery looked like, I could get behind that idea. “She also walks the Bradens’ dog when she’s not in class, but I figure she should have some time for us.”
“Let me show you around, then,” Nick said. At this point, I realized that he hadn’t yet dropped my hand, but when Jason mentioned my dog walking, a spark of something flashed through his emotions. His good will and his attraction to me were still there, yet there seemed to be a waver in his shields. It was so quick that I couldn’t be sure, and his shields were nearly as strong as my own, but his weren’t constructed to filter emotion. My shields protect me from the jumble of millions of constantly changing emotions that people emit, and sometimes project, on a daily basis. To feel all of them at once would literally drive me mad from the overload. His were constructed to hide behind.
Most people who have shields do so primarily as a means of protection from outside encroachment, and there’s a certain pattern of overlays used for this kind of shields. You can use a greater or lesser number of overlays, depending on your need for protection. Mine are a bit more complicated because most of my layers are set up specifically to filter emotions.
There are other kinds of shields, though. These are usually constructed by people who have absolute confidence in their ability to keep anyone, or anything, out of their minds. What they want protection from is people like me, people who can often see, or feel, past the standard shield to their emotions, anyone that might see through his projected image. Needless to say, he’d moved right on up the suspect list.
Unfortunately, my shields limit me to some degree in public places and situations. I have to sort through emotions to find the ones I’m looking for. This was almost like a flutter in his shields. When it’s that fast, it’s almost impossible to grasp what emotion caused the flutter. If he hadn’t still been holding my hand, there’s a good chance I would have missed it completely.
Jason drifted off to talk with a couple of grad students who were taking a break from walking off grids, and Dr. Jackson turned to talk to one of the students who’d been listening while Nick explained the processes used on the dig.
Nick and I walked the length of the site as he showed me how they divide the site into sections and work each systematically. I was able to casually pull my hand away as he led me around the sections that had already been laid out and showed me the various tools and brushes they used to unearth the finds. Of course, I’d studied them when we prepped for the assignment, and we’d talked about them in class, but I had never seen them used, so the mechanics of the actual digging fascinated me.
“It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds,” he said. “All you have to be able to do is follow directions and document fully. The diggers, the Bradens, and I will take care of the cataloging and transporting.” He flashed that smile at me again. “Perhaps you would consider dining with me. I’m sure I could pique your interest in joining us on site.”
“Perhaps I will,” I responded. “I’m tied up for the next couple of days, but after that I’m fairly open.”
“How about Friday night, then?” His smile reached all the way to eyes that were so dark they looked black, but whether he was sincere in his interest was locked up behind his shields.
“I’d like that,” I replied. As Jason rejoined us, my cell phone rang. I checked the caller ID. It was one of the Cerberus numbers.
“Hello.” I left Nick and Jason chatting and walked a few feet away.
“Hi, Cam Delaney here. We won’t be moving the Bradens back to their house for a couple of days yet, but we’ll be making a trip to retrieve some of their belongings in the morning. They’re still pretty freaked out, so if you could come along and make sure we’ve gotten everything we need for the dog, I’d appreciate it. They’d also really appreciate your continued help with Angel.”
What I wanted to say was, ”Surely you know what a dog needs,“ but what I actually said was, “Sure, that’s no problem. I was planning to come back by and check on her this evening in any case, and I’ll be happy to help in the morning. We can set the time when I come by this evening.”
“I’ll see you this evening, then.”
I hung up the phone and returned to where Jason and Nick were.
“You about ready to head out?” I asked Jason. “I have some physical therapy to start on the Bradens’ dog.” I smiled up at Nick.
“I’ll call you about Friday?” he asked.
“Sure.” I wrote my number on a piece of paper and handed it to him. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“What was that all about?” Jason asked when we were in the car.
“I have a date,” I said. “In a more relaxed, and less populated area, he might let his shields down a bit, so I can get a better sense of him. He’s got masking shields, not protecting shields.”
“I knew there was something off about him, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“I know, but he strikes me as really smarmy, Riley, so watch yourself.”
“I always do, Jase, I always do. We don’t have anything on him, though. We need information.”
As we accelerated back onto the highway, I looked over at Jason. Deceptively young-looking, with a slim build and green eyes that usually sparkled with some sort of mischief, he had overcome growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who spent more time in jail than at home. He was a good agent and a good man. We made a good team, but he had a tendency to be a bit overprotective.
Ten minutes later, Jason dropped me off at the diner so I could pick up my car and head back to the safe house to check on Angel.
By the time I arrived, the Bradens were home from the dig, and Cam was flying Keesha around the living room while her parents were cleaning up for dinner. My heart rate accelerated, and my stomach fluttered at the sight of him, but I pushed aside the lascivious thoughts that flashed through my mind, especially the picture of Cam naked. Keesha was giggling, and Angel, much more alert than she’d been in the morning, was up standing on her bed, bouncing on three legs, and barking because she couldn’t join in the fun.
I took the dog outside and walked her around the yard a time or two to see how well she was moving. She wasn’t putting much weight on the injured leg yet, but otherwise, the injury didn’t seem to be causing her any stress. One of the nicest things about being able to sense the emotions of animals is that they don’t worry over things the way we do. There are neurotic animals, just like there are people, but there aren’t as many of them.
The Bradens were downstairs by the time I went back in, and Sonya Braden rushed over to me.
“Riley, how good to see you. I wanted to thank you again for saving Keesha.” Her gratitude flowed over my shields in waves.
“I didn’t do anything special.” I understood how she felt, but anyone else would have done the same. Any emotion directed at me personally is more intense than the rather general, and usually fleeting, emotions people feel on a daily basis, so it makes me very uncomfortable.
“Be that as it may, you saved my daughter, and I will be eternally grateful.”
Cam rescued me then by interrupting. “Riley has agreed to go with us to the house in the morning. What time do you want to leave?”
“We need to be at the dig site by eight, so how about around seven?”
“Sounds fine to me.” While I am more a night person than a morning person, it takes me the same amount of time to get started whether it’s five a.m. or noon, so time is really not an issue. Cam agreed to the time as well, so I was able to avoid more of Sonya’s gratitude by leaving shortly after that.
Cam walked me out. At my car, we stopped and he looked at me. “I appreciate your help with the dog. It seems to calm the Bradens to have you around.”
“One less thing to worry about, I guess.” Projecting soothing calm around them probably didn’t hurt either. Too bad I couldn’t gain any of that calm for myself.
I leaned against my car and looked up at him, my heart racing. His blue eyes darkened as he looked down at me and for just a second, I thought he was going to kiss me, but he jerked back at the last second.
I headed home, heart finally slowing down halfway back to town. When I walked into the house, Jason was stretched out on the couch.
“Peter and Rena never showed up at the dig today. I’m headed over to their house. Wanna come with?”
We decided to drive. It was only a couple of blocks from our house, but the temperature was still in the nineties, and Jason still had a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead despite having been in the air-conditioned house for a while. Summer was getting an early start this year. Jason gave directions and I drove.
Like most of the houses within a five-block radius of campus, their house was old. It was bigger than our house, but from the number of people sitting on the porch, they had roommates. How many actually lived there and how many had just stopped by was anyone’s guess.
“I don’t see them,” Jason said as he reached for the car door handle.
A long-haired guy on the front porch waved as we got out of the car. His emotions were easy to read. He was stoned.
“Hey, Jase. How’s it going?”
“It’s all good,” Jason said. “Rena and Peter around?”
“Nah. Said they were going up to Turner Falls for a couple of days.”
“Thanks, man. Tell ‘em I stopped by, would you?”
“Sure thing. Want a beer?”
“Raincheck. It’s been a long day.”
“No problem. Catch you later.”
We headed back down the sidewalk. When the car doors were closed, Jason turned to me. “Interesting timing, don’t you think?”
“I do indeed.” Our list of suspicious characters was getting longer by the minute. Rena and Peter probably weren’t actual suspects since they hadn’t been on the Peru dig, so what they might or might not know about the spade itself was probably negligible. On the other hand, something was up with them. Diggers, students or not, don’t suddenly go on vacation at the beginning of a dig.
When we got back to the house, I pulled out my phone and called Giles.
“Two of our diggers have taken an unplanned couple of days up at Turner Falls, apparently. Do you have anybody who wants to go camping?”
“You know, I think Boswell is due for a couple of days off. He’d probably like to spend them up there.”
“That works. Thanks.”
“I’ll let you know if he turns up anything.”
We ordered the obligatory pizza and called it an early night. Jason wanted to be at the dig site before anyone else, and I had to meet Cam and the Bradens.
A dark-haired young woman met me at the door when I got to the safe house the next morning.
“Hi, I’m Lia, Cam’s sister. He should be back in a few minutes. You must be Riley.”
“That’s me. I take it you work for Cerberus too.”
“Yeah, when I’m not in school.”
“Where do you go to school?”
“SMU Law. The semester’s about over, though, so I’ll be taking over the nanny duties for Cam.”
I grinned at her. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.”
She laughed. “He’d better, ‘cause it’s definitely going to cost him.”
As we were laughing about that, two SUVs drove up and parked between my car and the blue truck in front of the house. Cam got out of the one directly next to my car, and a truly huge man stepped out of the other. He was about six foot seven, muscular, and dressed all in black. I could see where he’d make people feel safe, if he didn’t scare them to death first.
My heart rate speeding up at the sight or sound of Cam was becoming common enough that I barely noticed it, but when our eyes met, a zing shot through me, all of me, and I had to swallow my lust. He was far enough away that I couldn’t tell by scent if it had the same effect on him, but he did seem to hesitate for just a beat. Of course, that could’ve just been wishful thinking on my part.
“Morning,” he said curtly as he walked in the house. “Everyone ready to go?”
“Sonya was down a few minutes ago and said they were almost ready.”
“We’re here.” John and Sonya came out of the bedroom at the top of the stairs.
Cam led the way outside, where the Bradens headed for their car, and Cam and I got in his SUV. The blue truck pulled out first with the Bradens following, and Cam and I brought up the rear. The other SUV remained behind.
When everyone was loaded into the cars, Cam called the security team watching the Bradens’ house and let them know we were coming. Once the Bradens packed up what they needed and left, Cam and I would have some time to sort through the debris in the nursery.
“Lia seems nice,” I said, more in the way of an icebreaker than anything else, although I had liked her immediately.
“She likes you too.”
I tried not to think too much about how he knew that. “I’m sure you’re just as glad to be off nanny duty.”
“Yeah. I’ve never been one to be cooped up inside all day.”
“I can understand that. I’m not much for staying in one spot for extended periods of time myself.”
We rode in silence for a few minutes. Cam hadn’t impressed me as the chatty type when we’d first met, and he was doing nothing to change that impression now. The problem was that he piqued my curiosity, so I couldn’t let the opportunity to, well, pry go unexploited.
“So, how long have you been in the security business?”
“About ten years altogether. Jeff and I opened Cerberus about five years ago.”
“Why security? What did you do before?”
“I was in the military. It just seemed to be what I was best qualified for.”
“How did your brothers and sister get involved?”
“They grew up around it. I came home from the military when our parents died, and since that’s what I did, I guess they just developed their interest naturally.”
“I’m sorry about your parents. Accident?”
He was quiet for a few minutes, and I didn’t push. Finally, he sighed and said, “Undetermined. Our father was killed in an explosion at his lab, and shortly after that, our mother was run off the road by a supposedly drunk driver.”
“That’s what the report said.”
“Did you investigate?”
“I did. My questions apparently made someone very uncomfortable. Our dad worked for the government, and they politely let me know how easy it would be for me to lose custody of my siblings if I didn’t drop the investigation. I was twenty-two. I already knew it was going to be a close thing for us all to stay together without anyone coming out against us. They’re pretty much grown now, so one day soon we’ll sit down, and they’ll have a say in whether I ask those questions again, and when.”
“How old were they when your parents died?”
“Lia was twelve and the boys were ten.”
“You raised them yourself?”
“I had some help along the way from aunts and uncles, but for the most part, I think I’d come closer to saying we raised each other. Although as the oldest, I did get the deciding vote.” He grinned as he said the last, and when I looked back at the road, we’d arrived at the Bradens’ house.
Gina had come with us, and she was going to ride back with the Bradens. She absolutely refused to be away from the house for any length of time without some of her equipment. She’s cooked for the Bradens on dig sites around the world, and has carted a limited but must-have set of her own knives, spices, and pans. I have to admit, though, I think she could make a meal out of ketchup.
While the Bradens and Gina gathered up the items they needed, Cam and I went upstairs to remove the new crime scene tape from the nursery and sort through the debris that was left in the room. Cam had suggested to the Bradens that it would only make them more nervous to have to clean up the damage that had been done to the room and volunteered us for the job.
After the second intrusion, we were both eager to see what we could make of the mess the intruder had left. I hadn’t mentioned the knife had spells on it to Cam. Yesterday morning seemed years ago, and I hadn’t thought to ask how much DUE had told Cerberus about the case we were working on. Until I did, it wouldn’t be me who passed on the information. Sharing wasn’t my strong suit, anyway.
The Bradens took one look at the nursery and left us to it. The fear and heartbreak I sensed from Sonya when she looked at what had been her daughter’s beautiful nursery told me that Keesha would never sleep in this room again. I couldn’t blame her.
The room had been lovely, painted a light yellow with Keesha’s crib in one corner, and the matching bed that was to be her “big girl” bed in another. Now those beds were so much trash in the middle of the floor. What hadn’t been broken apart had been slashed. A table that matched the crib and had once held a merry jumble of fairies and frogs now leaned drunkenly on one of its broken legs. The remains of Keesha’s toys littered the floor around it.
Nothing pretty remained in the once-cheerful nursery. As John Braden surveyed the room, I felt his rage and frustration at the violation that ensured his family would never feel quite as safe in the home they’d spent so long building. Neither of them said a word. They just turned and walked down the stairs.
Cam and I divvied up the room and each of us took a trash bag. We carefully sorted through the debris for any clue, anything that shouldn’t be there, something that would give us some idea why this person thought the Bradens knew where the spade was, and what they hoped to find in the nursery. It made sense for the first break-in to be in the nursery since it was presumably an attempt to kidnap Keesha. The second break-in made less sense. Obviously, the Bradens weren’t hiding the spade in their daughter’s nursery.
I shook out the trash bag. “Did the intruder ever try to come back?” Presumably, given enough time, the intruder would have treated the entire house to the same destructive inspection.
“Not a sign of him,” Cam answered, flapping open his own bag.
“Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“It does. If he did this much damage to the nursery, I would have expected him to come back.”
“Yeah, you’d think he’d want to search the entire house. I wouldn’t have expected my interruption to have completely scared him off.”
“He may have decided, and rightly so, that the house was being watched.”
We worked in silence for a few minutes before Cam asked, “Finding anything?”
“Lots of trash, but nothing useful,” I said as I finished putting the last of the destroyed stuffed animals in a trash bag, closed it, and turned to hold the bag Cam was trying to stuff with parts of what used to be a changing table.
As I turned, something in the corner caught my eye. “Hang on, what’s this?” I handed the bag back to Cam and walked over to the corner of the room, lifted the torn crib pad off of what turned out to be a broken hair comb with one tooth missing.
I held the comb up. I wondered where this had been when the cops were through. They wouldn’t have missed this.
“Mena was the only one in the house who wore combs,” I said, “but she wasn’t wearing them the day she was shot.”
“Are you sure? She wore them a lot.”
“Yeah, she had her hair back in a ponytail. I remember we laughed about Keesha getting sticky fingers in her hair all the time.” My throat closed up thinking about it, and tears stung my eyes. “So yeah, I’m sure.”
“It must belong to someone else in the house.” From the casual tone, I gathered that he was under the impression that women automatically all used the same things when it came to hair.
“No. We talked about the combs Mena wore one day, and Sonya said her hair was too fine and they always fell out, so she never wore them. Gina has worn the same bun with almost the same pins for at least ten years, from what I gathered. They don’t provide enough stable control for my hair. I always have to keep redoing them.”
I could tell by his expression that he was completely lost, but he just blinked at me. “Okay, if Mena wasn’t wearing combs the day she was shot, what would this be doing here? In all the time I’ve known her, she never left anything lying around,” he said, “ever.”
“My point exactly.” We looked at the comb in my hand in silence for a long moment. Finally, I said, “Any ideas?”
“None.” Cam took the comb from me and turned it over in his hand. “Jeff knew her better than I did. I’ll see what he thinks.”
We finished clearing the debris out of the nursery, but the comb was our only find. Whatever Mena knew was locked up in her laptop and perhaps the comb.