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Superstar Stella Mae Ragel and her housekeeper were found dead at her horse farm at ten twenty this morning. According to JoJo at PsyLED HQ, another member of Stella's staff was now dead, more were dropping like flies, and the media was beginning to gather, also like flies.
Because of the speed of the progression of the illness and the high-profile victim, Psychometric Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security had been called in. My skill set didn't include medicine, forensics, or any form of magic except my own, so I figured I had been requested to do the scut paperwork.
I'd had less trouble getting into a private, top-secret research and development center with government contracts than I did getting onto Stella Mae's property. My personal ID, my PsyLED ID, the sticker on my official PsyLED vehicle, and the fact that my boss' boss had put me on the list kept by the security team at the gate were the only reasons I got in at all. The media people shouted questions at the car through the entire ID and vetting process, most of them shrill and sounding a little rabid. Some demanded to know what drugs had killed the country singer. Some wanted to know if she'd taken her own life. Some seemed to believe she had been the target of a deranged stalker.
The winding gravel driveway to Melody Horse Farm was long enough to keep the house from view by the dozens of media vans and cars parked out front, but I spotted a drone overhead and a helicopter with a newsy daredevil hanging out the side with a shoulder-mounted camera, getting the views. I hoped he was strapped in. I hoped the drone stayed out of his way.
I pulled over to let two ambulances pass me, both units moving slow, not running lights and sirens, so I knew the occupants were not in life-threatening condition, just sick or wounded and needing medical help. Through the rear windows of the last ambulance, the man on the stretcher lifted a hand at me, waving. The African-American man wasn't one of my team, and I didn't recognize him. He was fully dressed out in a sky blue biohazard suit, which was not reassuring. The latest batch of unis had been color coded so we didn't have to read labels in emergency situations, and the sky blue ones meant he was under precautions for everything: viral or bacterial pathogens or paranormal contagion or a combination of all three. We called them P3Es-paranormal personal protective equipment. When our team, PsyLED Unit Eighteen, was called in, there was always a para component.
I pulled back into the drive when the ambulances rolled past. Weaving between several dozen official police vehicles and three more ambulances, I parked and idled, sitting in the sun-heated car as I studied the house and grounds. Horses stood at the fence just ahead, watching the excitement, tails twitching, ears at attention. Aside from sitting on a draft horse a few times, I didn't ride, but I'd been raised on a communal farm, so even I could tell these were expensive, well-cared-for, curious, and intelligent equines. They had bright eyes, perked ears, and the glossy, well-conditioned, self-satisfied look of top-notch athletes who knew they deserved the best. I rolled down my window and smelled the farm air: manure, horse, hay; a scent that meant all the good things from my childhood-before I learned what God's Cloud of Glory Church really was and had gotten away from the dangers of the polygamist lifestyle.
"Hey, sweetie," I said to the nearest mare. She was a roan beauty with a six-month-old or so foal beside her. The mama horse flicked her ears at me in interest, probably wanting a peppermint or a carrot, which I didn't have. Flies and gnats swarmed around her face but didn't land, suggesting an application of bug spray. I let off the brake, rolled a little farther off the driveway, cracked all the windows against the day's heat, and touched the button to turn off the car. Which still felt all kinds of strange when, for my entire adult life, I had turned a key.
This was my first day back at work after two off, and I wanted one last moment to breathe in the calm before diving into work. Sitting alone in what was surely the quiet before the investigative storm, I studied the remarkable, well-cared-for, well-funded farm, and wondered how money related to the deaths here.
Stella's place was perched on the back crest of a hill, a large two-story, white-painted clapboard home with tall windows, dark shutters, porches at front and sides, and multiple dormers on each side of the tall, four-sided mansard roof. The house-like the four hundred acres of land-was big, even by church standards, and I came from a background where four wives and as many as forty children lived in one house. Big, I knew. This place was huge and extravagant and elegant. The front grounds were landscaped with mixed ornamental grasses and native landscape plants still holding on to summer green. An orchard of fruit trees, yellow-leaved with the season and some still bearing ripe apples, were planted beside the house; a nut tree orchard was in the background; hundreds of maple trees were farther back, bursting with colorful leaves from the short but deep chill that had taken over the region last week before the return of the unexpectedly warm Indian summer. Round bales of hay dotted a recently cut field nearby, and closer to the house, deep beds of well-worked soil were planted with ornamental kales and fall mums.
My fingers itched to dig into the soil, to feel the life in it, explore it with my nature magic, and let my own roots grow. But unless I wanted to be a tree again and perhaps forever, that wouldn't be smart.
The side door opened and a woman wearing a P3E pulled a stretcher across the narrow porch and lifted one end down the three steps to the ground as if it weighed nothing. On the stretcher was a biohazard cadaver pouch (also called a human remains pouch, or HRP). The other end of the stretcher was lifted down the steps by the woman's coworker before they wheeled it to a coroner's transport van. Weirdly, the HRP seemed to hold something boxy, rectangular, not body shaped. I wasn't sure what that meant, but then, I wasn't sure about much of anything. The gag order on this case was already in place.
The only particulars I knew about the crime scene had been told to me by JoJo Jones at HQ before I left. "Three dead, bodies going to UTMC for full forensic workup. Don't touch the bodies. I've sent you the timeline. Be careful."
There were a whole lotta possibilities in the little I knew. JoJo's "Be careful" implied the scene was still potentially dangerous. More significant was that the dead on-site would be transported to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, which had one of only a handful of forensic pathologists in the United States who also had a secondary certification in paranormal medicine. Para med was a rare specialty, and Nashville, which was much closer to the crime scene, had no such pathologist and no paranormal unit for patients. So, dead bodies, danger, paranormal, all sounded bad, but the bucolic setting was peaceful and the calm, measured body language of the first responders said everything was under control.
Maybe all the bodies were gone by now. That would suit me just fine. Having grown up at a church that practiced a form of communal farm living, I'd seen plenty of dead things, and even knew how to butcher animals for meat if necessary.
Didn't mean I liked seeing dead people.
My phone vibrated and I looked at the screen. It was my sister Mud, and I let the call go to voice mail, knowing it was trouble I didn't have time to deal with right now. She'd text me if it was something really urgent, but it had to involve spurting blood, active flames, or dead bodies to fall under that category. Arguments between sisters didn't count no matter how bad they got. We had tried it the other way around, calling only when urgent, but I used texts for work, and the constant dinging of family texts was distracting, so they were used for true emergencies, calls for minor things. If my sisters killed each other, well, I'd deal with the mess and the cleanup when I got home. I ignored the voice mail too, though I wanted to bang my head on the steering wheel in frustration.
The coroner's van trundled behind my vehicle, so I got out, made sure my weapon was securely seated in its Kydex shoulder holster, put on a casual jacket, and smoothed the driving wrinkles from my work pants. Opening the trunk, I retrieved my handheld psy-meter 1.0 and did a quick scan of the grounds and the house. Psy-meters picked up paranormal energies known as psions, but there was nothing much beyond normal ambient energies present outside. I put the psy-meter away and lifted out the milk crate that held my faded pink blanket and the potted tree before closing the trunk. "Sorry about the dark on the ride over," I told the tree. "I'll try to get something rigged so you can sit in the sunlight while I drive."
The potted vampire tree was a new addition to my evidence arsenal. I had no idea what English it understood, but I'd taken to talking to it anyway. Plants that were talked to in a kind tone of voice were happy plants. And since the vampire tree species had recently (probably, most certainly) eaten one of my enemies, I tried to be polite. I didn't want it to get mad. I placed the small crate on the passenger seat and locked up.
Scanning the grounds, I walked to the side door, where the body had come from, taking in the scenery behind the house and down the low slope of the hill. There were covered training rings, trails, outbuildings, several pastures, a mechanical horse walker, horse gear, and a barn that was bigger than my house. The horses that were hanging over the fences were muscular and sassy, with slightly dished faces, as if they had some Arabian in the genetic mix. The yearlings and mares with this year's foals appeared to be in one pasture, with geldings pastured separately.
Close to the barn, a bright red bay horse, bigger than the others, stood posed in a paddock, the breeze flinging his black mane and tail. He had black stockings and hooves, and a peculiar lightning-shaped white blaze on his face. He pawed the dirt and circled, prancing, posturing, tail held high. He reared and kicked, showing off. This was a stallion, the only intact male horse I had seen on the property so far. He snorted and burst into a tight, circling run, his mane and tail flying, neck arched, as if he was showing off. He blew a breath of delight and alpha-male satisfaction and tossed his head, the odd facial blaze seeming to flicker like flames. I didn't have to know anything about fancy horses to know this one was expensive.
Farther away from the house were a huge white metal shed with three fifteen-foot-tall garage-type doors and a big circular drive. Parked in front of the one open garage door was a forty-foot-long, solid black recreational vehicle with multiple dual wheels, a matching black transport trailer hitched to it. Through the windows in the closed shed doors I could see two more trailers. Big ones. To the side of the RV storage building was a long, very fancy horse trailer. Just looking at the vehicles made me think seven figures several times over.
Dang. Being a country-singing megastar made good money.
An older, pudgy cop standing inside the door stopped me and I had to go through the entire show-and-tell of my ID again. "Not that I mind," I said mildly, "but why all the security?"
"Sheeee-ut. A purdy little media photographer in a doctor's coat made it through the kitchen earlier, following the coroner." Lips pursed between his chubby cheeks, he compared my face with my official ID and my driver's license. He shook his head and returned my IDs. "She looked even younger than you do. He-yell, she even had an official-looking ID pinned to her doctor's coat. Switching her ass at me and smiling like she belonged here. The broad was inventive, I'll give her that. But I got my ass chewed, so full ID protocol it is." He lowered his voice, checking my name off a paper on a clipboard. "The sheriff's my cousin or I'd be in real trouble. You're on the list," he finished. "They're down the hall." He handed me a handful of plastic-wrapped candy. "Here. You'll need these. Extra-strong mints."
"Oh. Thanks." That was ominous. Mints were used in crime scenes where the bodies had been dead a while, to combat the stench and control the nausea that came from dealing with them. I shoved the mints into my pocket. I was pretty sure the sheriff's cousin was checking out my backside as I moved through the high-end kitchen toward the hallway. And yep, when I looked back, I caught him eyeing me. I'd been ogled by churchmen since I was ten, and had little patience with it. I really wanted to smack him with my badge, but that might make waves. I had to be on more professional behavior than I sometimes wanted to be, or knew how to be. I hadn't been a special agent for long and acting like one wasn't second nature to me. I frowned at him, but he just grinned, unrepentant and probably thinking he was cute, or that giving me mints gave him the right to leer.
Before I went down the hall, I took a moment for a good look at the kitchen and the huge room beyond it. There were white marble countertops and an island covered with bags of commercially made bread and buns, wilted lettuce, and tomatoes. There was a huge copper farmer's sink, a heavy-duty breadmaker's mixer, a copper-clad baker's oven, and a six-burner gas stove. The glass-fronted upper cabinets went to the tall ceiling, displaying white dishes; copper lights descended in strategic locations; and the floor was pristine interlocking white vinyl tile.
Through a cracked-open door I spotted private stairs up to the second story. I figured they gave direct access to the bedrooms for midnight snacks.