Sentinel

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Chapter 1

“You still got those files on the bastards who ruined your dad?”

Rick Moore’s mental alarm bells blared at the question. Its oh-so-casual tone signaled that Stan Wells, the fiftyish editor-in-chief of MageWire.com’s southeastern bureau, was up to something.

“Yeah, I have ‘em.” He would hold onto them as long as there was any hope of clearing his father’s name.  But that was old news, not something MageWire, the main news source for the mages living secretly among Mundane humans, would cover after so many years had passed.  “Why?”

Rick settled himself in the battered, blue visitor’s chair opposite Stan’s cluttered desk. The chair creaked, protesting having six feet of reasonably athletic male dropped into it.

Stan leaned forward. “I’m thinking about pushing for an investigation into your father’s case.”

Rick’s heart jumped. His father had been wrongly accused of using dark magic when Rick was only twelve.  The resulting mess had caused his dad’s death and ruined Rick’s family. If the case were reopened, Rick would finally have a chance to prove that accusation was false.

He had never wanted anything more.

Except having his dad back, alive and well. Nothing could give him that, though.

And nothing came for free with Stan.

The guy was a master strategist, something Rick had always admired about him. The many awards hanging on the walls of the cramped office attested to Stan’s success in spurring his reporters to land the tough stories. The ones that made a difference.

Schooling his face to blandness, Rick asked, “What’s the catch?”

“The national office is talking budget cuts. To cover ourselves, we need to break a big story, the kind you used to really sink your teeth into. I want you to write it.”

“An investigative story,” Rick said, his voice flat.

He should’ve known the invitation to MageWire’s Lawrenceville, Georgia, offices was about more than catching up. Exposés made Stan’s heart go pit-a-pat, but Rick had long since had enough of that work. “You do remember I walked away from investigative stories four years ago?”

Stan leaned forward in his leather desk chair.  “Yeah, but before you burned out and decided you wanted to piddle around with your ‘Furthermore’ column and your novels, or whatever, you were the best I had.”

He tapped his pen on the desk, maybe letting the ego stroke soak in.  But Rick didn’t care about ego points.  Investigative journalism had turned him into something he didn’t want to be.

Stan continued, “I need you for this, Rick. I don’t have anyone else with your knack for getting the stories people don’t want to tell. In return, I’m willing to stick my neck out over an old, fairly minor scandal. And you get what you’ve wanted for years.”

His father’s disgrace and subsequent death weren’t minor to Rick even if they’d scarcely made a ripple in the wider mage world. Damn it, Stan was casting a good lure, one he knew Rick would find hard to refuse. The MageWire southeastern bureau covered a wide area. If its editor pushed to reopen the case, odds were high that there would be an investigation.

There was no guarantee an investigation would clear Dad’s name, but a slim chance was better than none. “What’s the story?”

Stan grinned, probably scenting victory. “You remember that shire reeve who went rogue three years ago?”

“The guy who flipped out and killed a Councilor.” The shire reeve was the top mage cop in his or her region, the equivalent of a US Marshal, so the guy’s rampage had stunned the mage community. “Still at large, isn’t he? Or did somebody kill him?”

Wouldn’t Mundanes go crazy if they knew about any of that--or found out that mages lived among them, complete with their own regional, or shire, governments?

Stan shook his head. “He’s still out there. Went on to kill his former chief deputy, his lover, and an old friend. And that’s on top of the four deputy reeves he slaughtered when they tried to apprehend him in the Council chamber. Name’s Griffin Dare.”

“I remember that.  He was hero until that day.  Then he pretty much tossed the shire reeve code of courage and integrity out the window.” So had the shire reeve who’d helped ruin Rick’s dad, only most people didn’t know it. “What could make a guy like Dare turn traitor?”

“Word is, he sold out to the ghouls.” Stan’s eyes narrowed. “It’s been three years since he went rogue, but nobody has ever found that sumbitch. There’s got to be a reason.”

“You think someone’s helping him.”

“Gotta be,” Stan said. “Otherwise he’d have to be screened 24/7/365. Nobody can do that.”

True. And intriguing. Mages could scry, magically viewing and locating anyone who wasn’t covered by a magic screen.  But such screens burned power fast, and mages didn’t have an unlimited store.  They required periodic recharges from natural energy--sunlight, trees, wildlife.

“The deputy reeves were scrying around the clock for weeks after the first murders,” Stan continued, “but they never got even a glimmer. That means Dare had help. I’m betting on his family.”

“Surely the reeves questioned them.”

“Politely.” Stan snorted. “At their house in Macon. At their convenience. Supposedly, the deputy reeves searched the place. Also politely.”

The old pain gouged Rick’s gut.  When his father had been accused of using dark magic, Rick’s parents had been hauled into the Great Lakes Area Collegium, the mage headquarters that covered their Illinois home, and questioned for days. Dark magic use was a serious crime because its power came from death and blood in a perversion of natural law. While Rick’s mom and dad were questioned, the deputy reeves had ransacked their house.

Rick leaned forward. “How did the Dares rate kid glove treatment?”

“Three guesses.” Stan shook his head. “Dare’s father is a hotshot lawyer, practices in both the mage and the Mundane courts. His mom’s a famous sculptor. On top of that, the Dares are one of the oldest, most powerful mage lines. Griffin Dare’s friends, who of course enjoy the aura of the family’s influence, were questioned with a bit more intensity but not much.”

“Connections,” Rick noted grimly. “It’s not what you know, it’s who.” The lack of such connections for his dad, while the true criminal had them in abundance, had wrecked Rick’s family.

At Stan’s nod of agreement, Rick said, “So you want me to find this guy. That seems more like a job for the deputy reeves than an ex-reporter.”

“Not exactly. I want you to find out what the Dares know about all this. They stonewalled reporters from day one.”

“As though they had something to hide,” Rick said slowly. Just like the mage who’d really done the things that’d been blamed on his dad.

“Exactly,” Stan said. “If they’re hiding him, find out where. If they helped him, find out what they know. If they did anything criminal--and I’d bet my right arm they did--take them down.”

Something about this still wasn’t right. “Why now? The southeast bureau covered all this at the time.”

“Never made much headway. We had a reporter on it, Jim Todd, but he said the story fizzled.”

“So what’s changed?” Rick barely knew Jim, but the guy had a stellar rep. Until his retirement, he’d been the Southeast’s top investigative reporter.

“There’s an opening. Stuart and Lara Dare are granite about their privacy, but their daughter, Griffin’s younger sister, is trying to launch an arty career--fancy placemats, rugs, some kind of fabric art. Name’s Caroline.  She’ll have to be more accessible if she wants traction.”

“Maybe, but if she’s hiding something, getting her to open up will be a challenge.” And something about her was niggling at his brain, something from the press release Georgia Arts Monthly had forwarded to him in his capacity as their Macon stringer.

Stan continued, “Caroline Dare is twenty-seven, three years younger than you, so you’re the right age to hang with her. You both live in Macon, which is handy. She has her first showing at the Parkhurst Gallery the day after tomorrow.”

Rick frowned. “She’s flying high for a newbie.  That’s one of the city’s most exclusive galleries. I’ve covered events there.”

“Connections again.” Stan informed him. “Her mama, Lara Dare, always shows her sculptures there. Anyway, you have a gift for getting people to talk to you. And women seem to like you. Though why they’d go for that unshaven look is a mystery to me.”

Rick shrugged. He’d never had trouble getting dates. Maybe it was because he kept himself in shape and had passable looks, but light brown hair and blue eyes were ordinary. A more likely reason was that, as Stan had noted, something about Rick seemed to invite people to talk.

He’d never played a woman for a story, though.

“You covering the Dare girl’s opening?” Stan asked.

“I’d thought about it, but--wait a minute!” Aghast, Rick said, “Caroline Dare is blind. I remember that from the press release. You want me to cozy up to a blind woman to get an inside track with her family.”

Cursing silently, he shook his head. “Investigative work always means swimming around in the shit pool, but that’d be a new low.”

Swimming in muck was a big part of the reason he’d gotten sick of investigative journalism. That, and the occasional kid whose life was wrecked by a parent’s crimes. Rick had been such a kid, and his father’s actual innocence hadn’t cushioned the destruction of their family one bit.

“So she’s blind.” Stan shrugged. “I’ll guaran-damn-tee you she had an easier time of it than most sighted people. First, she has some magic, which the press release we got, unlike the one that went to Mundane news outlets, says is how she makes the tapestries. But even more important, she must’ve had the very best mobility training, educational assistance, adaptive equipment, whatever, that money can buy.”

“Yeah, but--"

“Rick, if she’s helping to hide the most wanted fugitive in the mage world, a man who killed eight mages, does being blind let her off the hook?”

“Of course not.” But Rick had left investigative work in part because it was making him more jaded than he’d already been. Now Stan wanted him to dive back in.

A blind woman, for God’s sake!

Still, this could be Rick’s one chance to clear his dad’s name.

Mom had never gotten over Dad’s disgrace or his subsequent death. If Rick could lift the shadow that had lurked in her eyes for the last eighteen years and eliminate the embarrassment his sister, Jenny, still suffered when anyone made the connection, how could he refuse?

“I have the MageWire research file, the updates Jim Todd sent me as he worked, and my notes on what we discussed,” Stan said. “I made you copies. I’m also trying to get you an embed with the deputy reeves, give you a chance to make some contacts who might know something about Dare. That’ll take some doing, seeing as how they haven’t allowed any embeds since the reporters on Dare’s last, disastrous raid were killed. If I can pull it off, you’ll have to move fast.”

Rick nodded. Surely the deputies would’ve shared anything relevant during the investigation, but you never knew when a lead would turn up.

“So you’re in?” Stan asked. “I need the story by the time the national budget committee meets, so you’ve got two weeks.”

Rick stared at him. Two weeks to get inside a family with something to hide. Not nearly enough time. But winning the trust of wary people had earned him his biggest stories. He could do this.

Justice for the dead was always too late, but better late than never. And Rick would do anything to lift that shadow in his mom’s eyes.

Besides, Stan was right. If Caroline Dare and her parents were harboring a murderer, they deserved to be taken down.

“Yeah,” Rick said. “I’m in.”

#

“You hit it out of the park, baby.” Caroline Dare’s date, Jerald Layton, spoke softly in her ear. “I can hear the sweet cha-ching of money flowing in.”

Caro mustered a smile. Jerald’s focus on sales was only natural for an ambitious stockbroker. It wasn’t his fault this evening wasn’t perfect.

The soft fizz of champagne in the flute she held sent ticklish bubbles up her nose. She didn’t need eyesight to know the art gallery was busy, even growing crowded. The mix of cheerful conversation, footsteps on hardwood flooring, and the mellow tones of a saxophone filled the air.

Her magical senses picked out the denser, heavier energy of normal, or Mundane, humans and the more subtle, lighter vibes of the mageborn among them. Her show had garnered a great turnout with corresponding sales. And yet.

“This is an excellent start,” her dad said quietly from her other side. But his quick squeeze of her shoulder conveyed his understanding that she couldn’t just bask in this success. He and her mom couldn’t either, and for the same reason.

Griffin wasn’t here.

“You have a great turnout,” her mom noted. “I think you’re launched, honey.”

“You and Dad had a lot to do with the turnout. Most of these people are your friends.”

“Some of them,” her father admitted, “but not all. And they wouldn’t write the checks they’re writing out of friendship.”

Caro hoped so. Since graduating from college five years ago, she’d worked as a researcher at her dad’s law office, but that had been only a stopgap. Art was her love, even though her blindness had stopped her from majoring in it in college. This was her chance.

"Lara,” her dad said, “there are the Kents. Let’s go say hello.”

As Caro’s parents moved away, other footsteps came closer, quick, light, with the click of high heels on hardwood--Belinda Parkhurst, the gallery owner--and a second set with a heavier, flatter tread. A man.

All mages could pick up traces of each other’s moods when in physical contact, and sometimes, when the other mage’s emotional walls were down, at close range. That was handy enough, but Caro had greater sensitivity than most. She could also sense Mundane moods.

Belinda emitted excitement and pleasure. Good. Things were going well. Caro could picture the tall, slender woman with her wavy, graying hair brushing her shoulders and her face rosy with satisfaction.

The man with Belinda gave off mage energy, strong and focused, but he felt more guarded. Friendly, but with his emotional walls up.

They stopped in front of her.

“Caroline,” Belinda said, “this is Rick Moore from Georgia Arts Monthly. He wanted to say hello.”

Caro’s magical senses showed her the outline of a six-foot, broad-shouldered frame to Belinda’s left. She extended her right hand. “It was nice of you to come tonight, Mr. Moore.”

“I’m very glad I did.”

When he clasped her hand in his warm, large one, her pulse took a little hop. Odd. But maybe the unusual intensity coming from him meant she wasn’t the only one affected.

He shook hands with just enough firmness to show he wasn’t babying her. At exactly the polite moment, he released her fingers.

Absently, Caro noted Belinda excusing herself. Calling out to a customer, the gallery owner hurried away.

Unfortunately, Jerald was emitting a new, disdainful vibe. Rick Moore apparently didn’t measure up to what Caro was coming to know as Jerald’s standards.

Jerald slid his arm around Caro’s waist. “Jerald Layton,” he drawled, infusing the words with condescension. “Are you a collector, Moore?”

“No, a music fan.” The rueful note in his deep, smooth voice was charming, and his actual voice...its faint rasp set off tingles deep inside her. Caro repressed a shiver.

“So what are your impressions of the show?” she asked, smiling to make up for Jerald’s rudeness. She’d invited him tonight because he was mageborn, allowing freer conversation than a Mundane companion would, and they’d had a few fun dates. She hadn’t realized he was a snob.

“I’m intrigued,” Moore replied. “The press release we received said you took your inspiration from different types of music.”

Jerald’s hold tightened. “The cards by the tapestries say that.”

“I noticed.” Moore maintained his amiable tone.

At least one of the men wasn’t being an ass. This territorial bit from Jerald was new. And unwelcome.

Before Caro could try to smooth over his curtness, Moore continued, still in an easy, relaxed voice, “Ms. Dare, I particularly like the one called Spring. The color gradations are subtle and engaging, and the song that inspired the work, The Cypress Knees’ ‘Georgia Morning,’ is a favorite of mine.”

“A lot of people like it. That’s why it’s a hit on the indie charts,” Jerald muttered.

Ignoring him, she responded, “Make it Caro, please.”

“Thanks. I’m Rick to my friends. How did you choose that song for the work?”

The warmth in his voice wrapped around her like a buffer against Jerald’s mood. Smiling at Moore, she admitted, “’Georgia Morning’ is a family favorite.”

Griffin especially liked it. She’d played it whenever she worked on the Spring tapestry. Every color she’d chosen for that particular piece, every bobbin of thread she’d wound, had been with him in mind.

“There’s a lot to be said for family favorites,” Moore observed.

Jerald cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt here, but--”

“Then don’t.” Caro kept her smile in place despite the urge to drive her stiletto heel into Jerald’s toes. Maybe Moore was only being polite with his compliments, but he sounded sincere.

“I’m here to do a piece for Georgia Arts Monthly, as Belinda said,” Moore told her. “I’d love to talk to you about your work when it’s convenient.”

“Really?” Delight bloomed in her heart, fast and deep, and her cheeks heated.

The outline of Moore in her magical awareness nodded, then tensed, as though he realized she couldn’t see any detail in his reaction. “Yes,” he said. “This is truly amazing, and the response you’re getting shows that there would be interest.”

Wow...but...Reporters tended to pry at doors best left closed. Caro swallowed a sigh.

”I’m sorry, but I don’t give interviews.” With some regret, because she liked him and she did want her work to make a splash, she cooled her voice. “It’s family policy.”

“I see.” Although Moore still sounded relaxed, his deep voice carried a tinge of disappointment. “If you change your mind, I’d be glad to send you the questions by email ahead of time.”

Before she could refuse again, he added, “And now I’m sure there are others who’d like to talk to you. It was nice meeting you, Caro. Layton.”

His shape and his footsteps receded into the swirl of life energy in the gallery. Too bad. He’d seemed like such a nice guy.

But she couldn’t let down her guard, even for the sake of her career. Too many people wanted to write sordid stories about Griffin or his family. Because he was a painter, even Mundane publications like Peachtree Arts Bulletin had glommed onto her “missing” brother, supposedly homeless and mentally ill.

Caro swallowed a sigh. Best to guard her privacy and steer clear of any reporters. Even part-time ones. And especially charming ones. They always wanted something.

#

Rick had known getting Caroline Dare to talk to him wouldn’t be easy. He’d even expected vigilant parents. After all, it was a big night for her, and this event would stir up talk about her brother’s absence. But he hadn’t figured on the hostile boyfriend.

He should have. After all, she was a lovely woman.

A lush fall of black hair framed her rose-and-cream complexion. Those classical, elegant features like her mom’s, combined with her dad’s gray eyes, presented a pleasant picture but an unremarkable one. The real appeal came from the sparkle, the life, in her face. He’d stupidly failed to realize a blind woman’s face could be so animated.

His mistake.

So of course there was a boyfriend. The guy wouldn’t be at her side forever, though.

Rick shrugged. He’d mentioned his article to show her he was harmless, possibly even helpful, but it hadn’t worked. He’d just have to regroup and try again. Up his game.

By all accounts, Caroline had been close to her brother. She very well might know why he’d acted as he did and, with a little encouragement, even spring to his defense.

Unless he really was a traitor and she knew it. Getting her to talk then would be tougher. But Rick would persevere. Talent didn’t entitle her to shelter a murderer.

Too bad his palm tingled faintly with the memory of her touch. Had he imagined that hint of color in her cheeks when she’d shaken hands with him?

He’d come to get a story, not lose his head over a beautiful woman. But if she was attracted to him, that improved his odds of finding a chink in her armor.

Wandering the gallery, he listened to the buzz of admiring voices under the music. But there was Burton McCree, the main critic for Macon Arts Weekly, and he was scowling. Not good. Really not good.

How could he not like images beautifully woven in silk and wool that gleamed with vibrant energy?

Rick paused by one called Firebird, based on the classical Stravinsky. But the dark landscape, the storm clouds, and the nimbus of light around a launching bird in scarlet, gold, and tiny hints of green--how did a blind woman, even a mageborn one, know you could sometimes see green in a fire?--those were all hers. And they took his breath away.

The bird had an exuberance, a joy, that even the dark background couldn’t stifle. That same energy ran through all these hangings. The woman was brilliant.

She might’ve gotten this showing through connections, but the pieces on display deserved it. Stan had been far too dismissive. Fancy place mats, my ass.

Rick glanced at her again. Surely there was no harm in admiring the way that vivid blue dress clung to her slim body. Her tall, willowy form showed just the right curves, subtle and feminine but not overblown. No wonder his eyes kept straying in her direction.

A middle-aged couple stopped to speak to her. Layton leaned in, then bulled into the conversation. Rick frowned. What the hell was such a gifted woman doing with such a jackass?

More important, how could Rick peel her away from Layton and convince her to work with him?