Guardian (The Protectors Series)

BOOK: Guardian (The Protectors Series)
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Guardian

Nancy Northcott

Book 2 in the Protectors Series

New York    Boston

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

 

When you love an author’s books and she takes an interest in yours, it’s kind of hard to believe. This book is dedicated to two terrific writers who’ve paid me the mind-blowing compliment of mentoring my writing and done me the great honor of becoming my friends. I’m not at all sure I would’ve gotten to this point without the encouragement, accolades, and hard truths they’ve offered.

I owe them a debt I can never repay.

This is for Nancy Knight and Patricia Rice.

Building a world is a complex undertaking, and mixing an imaginary world with our real one can be a tricky business. I’ve had invaluable help from a number of people. Dr. Bonnie Revelle and Dr. Christopher Lunsford patiently answered my questions about medical ethics and head injuries and directed me to helpful resources. Dr. Alan Koslow provided helpful background information for Stefan. Dr. Dale Grote keeps the mages’ Latin imperatives accurate, and Dr. Mark Clemens’s insights into the liver and its functions provided the key to pulling this plot together. Roberta Tepper provided helpful advice for Mel. Cassondra Murray and Steve Doyle helped arm and transport the mages. Suzanne Ferrell, R.N., and Joan Kayse, R.N., answered basic medical questions. Any errors are due not to their mistakes but to mine.

Some writers work best in a vacuum. I’m not one of them. I like having other writers around to bounce ideas off of and to discuss books and the publishing industry. The Avocat Noir plot group is a great place to do both. Donna MacMeans, Joan Kayse, Jeanne Adams, and Cassondra Murray were a great help in laying out a torturous road for Stefan and Mel to travel. As always, the Romance Bandits provided encouragement and the occasional necessary reality check. A. C. Crispin and the DC2K Writers have given me terrific support and feedback.

Having a book published is a joy but, as many people warned me, brings new waters to navigate. My RWA chapters, Carolina Romance Writers, Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, Georgia Romance Writers, and Kiss of Death, have been a great help. I’m also grateful for the advice and encouragement of Eilis and Mike Flynn, Gerri Russell, Judy Rosenbaum, Rebecca Turner, Roxann Pearson, Carol A. Strickland, Patricia Rice, Nancy Knight, Sandra Chastain, Anna DeStefano, Jana Oliver, Berta Platas, Michelle Roper, Haywood Smith, Mary Buckham, Karen Rose, and Dianna Love.

P. J. Ausdenmore not only provides encouragement and chocolate but makes being photographed a less frightening experience. If there’s a candid photo on the Web of me at a writer gathering and I look good, odds are that P. J. took it. The members of the Davidson Wild Women beach group have also given me great support. Ann Wicker, Carol Horowitz, Wendy Felker, Sue McAvoy, Bonnie Revelle, Marty Sharpe, Staley Nance, and Van Garrison have taken a particular interest in the mages, and I appreciate that very much.

I’m deeply thankful for my wonderful agent, Beth Miller, who is always ready to provide any help I need, and my terrific editor, Latoya Smith, who sometimes saves me from myself.

Finally, I’m grateful to and for the two men who always have my back. My husband, Mark, and our son, Gavin, have always encouraged me to pursue my dream, even when it wasn’t convenient for them. You two are my heart.

The Okefenokee Swamp is a blackwater peat bog that encompasses about 700 square miles. Most of this vast acreage lies within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which was created in 1936. The refuge opens shortly before dawn and closes overnight, and anyone wanting to camp overnight must first obtain a permit. In the Protectors series, I’ve created areas of the swamp that lie outside the refuge so I could avoid having the characters run into these restrictions.

 

Okefenokee alligator

Wayfarer, Georgia

Present day

T
oo late, too late, too late.

The refrain pounded through FBI Special Agent Camellia “Mel” Wray’s brain. Each repetition slammed into her heart. She took a slow, deep breath that didn’t ease her pain or her guilt.

She should’ve been here, should've come when Cinda first asked her, not let work get in the way. Sick in the depths of her soul, she hitched up the knees of her gray slacks and knelt in the grass by her music teacher’s crumpled body.

On Cinda Baldwin’s other side, the thin, gray-haired medical examiner, Dr. Harry Milledge, also knelt. He watched Mel over his glasses but said nothing, giving her time to process. Somewhere behind her, the sheriff and two of his deputies waited.

Headlights from their cruisers cast harsh shadows over Cinda’s face, and the blue flashers gave her contorted features an eerie tint. Her agonized expression eliminated any hope that she’d had an easy death. Mel brushed a strand of white hair off Cinda’s cold forehead.

“You all right, ma’am?” A stocky deputy who looked to be in his midtwenties crouched beside Mel. Hastily, he corrected, “I mean, Special Agent.”

Ma’am
. So familiar and, in the South, so automatic. Cinda had been
ma’am
until Mel grew up enough to become a friend and not just a student. She was the only person outside of the family who still called Mel by her old, more girlish nickname of Cami.

Mel sucked air into her tight chest, but the deep breath didn’t help. If only the night weren’t so muggy. But what could you expect of southern Georgia in September, a few miles from the vast, wet expanse of the Okefenokee Swamp?

“I’m fine, thank you.” Guiltier than homemade sin, as people back home would’ve said, but she wasn’t about to hurl from seeing a dead person. This wasn’t the first murder scene she’d attended, just the first involving a friend.

Why the hell hadn’t she driven the five or so hours from Atlanta sooner? Her team had cracked the human trafficking ring’s code at midday, but Mel had waited for the busts, wanting to savor the rare pleasure of seeing a teenage victim reunited with her family. Instead, she should’ve hit the road.

If Mel had left sooner, arrived here before Cinda’s assailant, Cinda might still be alive.

Mel locked the guilt away. Later for that. “I confirm this is Lucinda Baldwin, the owner of this property.”

At least this cottage in the woods was far enough from town that there were no curious onlookers or passersby this late at night. Only Mel’s dark green Jeep Cherokee, the sheriff’s two cruisers, and an ambulance sat behind Cinda’s green Ford Fiesta in the driveway. No one hovered near the yellow crime-scene tape ringing the front yard.

“How well did you know her?” The deputy, whose name tag read
Mitchell
, had his notebook out now, and a pen.

“We’re from the same town, Essex, up in eastern North Carolina. She was my music teacher for ten years.” She was also the only person who’d encouraged Mel to pursue a career playing her flute even though her dad scorned it as impractical. “We kept in touch, visited once or twice a year.”

“What brings you here tonight?”

“A visit, as I said earlier. I’d planned to spend several days with her.” Mel hesitated. Saying Cinda wanted an FBI agent to check out some weird things wouldn’t win points with the locals, but they should know she’d been nervous. “She said she’d seen some strange things, odd-looking people, eerie lights back in the woods at the full moon. Did she ever report any of that?”

“Not so’s I know, but I’ll check.” He pursed his lips. “Lights mighta been the local Wiccans, especially at the full moon, but you never know. Lots of strange things been seen in the swamp for centuries. Right many Indian legends about it.”

Wiccans and swamp hoodoo. Mel swallowed a sigh. No wonder the town of Wayfarer, Georgia, had a New Age weirdo reputation.

She glanced at Dr. Milledge. “What can you tell me?”

“Officially, nothing.” When she nodded her head in acknowledgment, he added, “Seeing as how you carry that federal badge, though, I don’t mind saying she has odd wounds.” He opened Cinda’s blouse to reveal four bloody punctures on the right shoulder.

Mel’s head went light. She took a deep breath and forced herself to focus on the punctures and not the fact that this was Cinda, the woman who’d been more of a mother to her than her own flesh and blood. “Not much blood for wounds like that.”

“No. There’s a fifth on the back of the shoulder, as though from a grip. Five more at the base of the spine with what might’ve been the thumb dead center, by eyeball estimate, on the lumbosacral plexus.”

The description, the reference to that nerve junction in the lower back, jiggled something deep in Mel’s brain, but she couldn’t bring it forward.

“Shoulder wounds are right over the brachial plexus,” he continued, indicating the nerve junction at the right shoulder. He unbuttoned the checked cotton the rest of the way and gently folded the right side back. With one finger, he traced a deep, short abdominal cut. “Under here’s the liver.”

“The killer meant to cut out her liver?” Mel jerked her eyes aside and swallowed hard against a sick taste in her mouth.
Focus, damn it.
But a murdered friend could never be just another case. The guilt and the loss and the bone-deep outrage over what Cinda had suffered threatened to choke her. She shut her eyes to stem angry tears. Later for that, too.

Blowing out a hard breath, she looked back at the doctor. The kindness in his eyes deepened her guilt because she didn’t deserve it. If only she’d left Atlanta sooner.

“I couldn’t say what was intended,” he replied, “not from this wound alone. It’s odd, though.”

Odd, yes, and another poke in the depths of her brain, another fuzzy image she couldn’t bring clear.

“Cause of death?” Mel asked.

“No guesses.” The doctor shook his head. “Not until I take a closer look. We’re ready to transport, if you’re done.”

“Yes. Thank you, very much, for talking to me.” She might be a Fed, but she had no jurisdiction over a local murder. The sheriff and his team had allowed her this much out of professional courtesy.

Mel stood and made herself turn away. Her hands were shaking, so she jammed them into her pockets.

Deputy Mitchell offered her a bottle of water. Mel took it with a word of thanks. She hadn’t realized he’d gone to get it.

“Can you help us find next of kin?” he asked.

“She doesn’t have any family left. I’m her executor.” Knowing what that might imply, she looked the deputy straight in the eye. “Aside from small personal bequests to friends—including me, unless she changed that—she left everything to the North Carolina School of the Arts.”

“But she lived here in Georgia?”

“She liked the atmosphere in Wayfarer.” Until lately. “She had a friend down here, a retired lawyer. Hettie…something with a
T
.”

“Miss Hettie Telfair?” The young man’s sandy brows rose.

“That sounds right. I’d have to see Cinda’s address book to know for sure.”

“I guess that’s it for now, ma—uh, Special Agent.”

“‘Ma’am’ is fine.” Any term of respect would do. At age thirty, Mel had been on the job long enough to lose the insecurity that came with being a young, female law enforcement officer. “I’ll let you know if I think of anything else, of course.”

“We’d appreciate that.”

As the deputy pocketed his pad, Sheriff Dan Burton walked over to her.

“Strange case,” the short, burly man said.

“Yes. Worse when it’s a friend.” Mel kept her back to the bagging and lifting going on behind her. The idea of Cinda in that bag clawed at her heart. She tried to focus, convince herself this was a routine investigation. “Any witnesses?”

“The woman who called 911 was driving by when her headlights hit a white male bending over Miss Cinda. He ran right in front of the car. Description puts his age as midtwenties, height around five six, blond hair.”

He paused, frowning. “She said his eyes were purple, swore to it, but I’m thinking that’s a trick of the light.”

“Or contact lenses.”

The sheriff eyed her speculatively, his face tense in the eerie light. “Seein’ as the deceased was a friend, you gonna try to pull the Bureau in on this case?”

Mel shook her head. “No grounds, and we both know it. I want in, though.” She met his narrowed eyes with a level stare. “Unofficially. I’m on leave from the Bureau for the next two weeks. When I saw you all here, I felt…”
Stunned. Punched in the heart
.

Saying so wouldn’t help her case.

Mel drew a steadying breath. “I’m not too proud to do legwork, and I know how to take orders from the officer in charge.”

He studied her for another few seconds. “I’ll need to get a look at that will, of course. If you’re clear, and if you can be objective, I got no problem with you helping out.”

Mel nodded. “I can do that.”
Clear
meant not only that she inherited too little to be a motive for murder but also that she hadn’t had time to come here from Atlanta after work, kill Cinda, and then pretend to drive up after the sheriff’s crew arrived. That was procedure, and she’d expected it.

“Thank you, Sheriff Burton. You’ve been very kind. If you can suggest a motel nearby, I’ll write down my work and travel schedule for today and get out of your way.”

She’d planned to stay with Cinda, but that would never happen again. Mel set her jaw against a rush of grief.

Sometimes justice wasn’t enough. This was going to be one of those times, damn it, but seeing the killer punished was the only thing she could still do for Cinda.

*  *  *

Dr. Stefan Harper knelt by the rescue litter, both hands over his patient’s heart. “Stay with me, Javy,” he murmured, praying the unconscious man would hear him. His magic infused the slight, dark-haired mage’s chest, sealing the damaged blood vessels as best he could, keeping the heart beating and the lungs pumping.

He exchanged a worried glance with Edie Lang, the slim, blond medic kneeling across from him.

 A ghoul energy blast crashed into the magic shields surrounding them. The eight encircling mages’ shields deflected the lethal energy with a sizzling sound, and a flash of silver mage power mixed with the muddy yellow-brown of ghoul.

Where the hell was the evac chopper?

Another bolt crashed in, then another, while other mages fought the ghouls around the protective circle. The battle had begun at the ghoul nest and spread far to the east, away from the mage landing zone and its medical helo. The defending mages had to keep the ghouls clear until the evac chopper arrived.

 But could Javy Ruiz live long enough to reach the Collegium, the mages’ base near Brunswick, Georgia? The state-of-the-art equipment would give Stefan’s patient, his friend, a chance to live. If they reached the OR fast enough.

“Blood pressure,” Stefan rapped out. He couldn’t check it himself without losing focus on his task.

Another bolt crashed off the shielding, then another. The circle of mages tightened.

“BP seventy-two over forty-eight,” Edie reported.

Hell.
That was way below the bottom of normal. Over his shoulder, he called, “Someone get an ETA on that helo.”

The shrapnel wounds in Javy’s chest were too numerous for Stefan to stop all the bleeding. They had to reach the OR fast.

“Josh says two minutes, give or take,” Tasha Murdock reported grimly. Her fatigues and helmet magically reflected the forest around the small clearing. “What can I do? Do you need a power boost?”

Stefan shook his head. More power wouldn’t block the leaks, and the shrapnel would wreak further havoc if he simply summoned the little bits of metal out. A sword wound would’ve been so much simpler to heal. The command to heal,
sanere
, backed by magic and Stefan’s will, could close a clean wound, but the shrapnel in Javy’s body would prevent proper sealing of the injured tissues.

At least Stefan could use magical CPR, not drive the shrapnel deeper with chest compressions and make things worse. That was too dangerous to try until they were at the OR. Unless Javy died. If that happened, magic wouldn’t work anymore, but the Mundane, or normal human, technique might.

Damn it, he could feel the BP dropping. He glanced at Edie, who pumped air into the cuff on Javy’s arm.

“Fifty-two over thirty,” she said, her voice flat but steady. Her background as a wildland firefighter paramedic made her cool under pressure.

Stefan looked up at Tasha. “Josh needs a safe perimeter.” Having Josh Campbell, an army combat veteran, as their pilot was a point in favor of Javy’s survival, but without help, Josh couldn’t shield the helo well enough to protect it from flying energy bolts.

“On it.” Tasha sprang toward the front. “Darren, Leslie, with me. Let’s put up a shield for Josh.”

Stefan heard them head out as though from a distance, his attention still focused on the pale, unconscious father of two. But he couldn’t think about Javy’s kids now. Better to focus on the vitals.

The ghouls fighting the mages around Stefan and his patient were the last of their nest. The dawn raid Javy led had destroyed the nest and most of the ghouls inside. The mages had seized a lot of documentation, but they didn’t yet know whether those records contained any useful information. Like whether the ghouls’ allies, demons from the Void between worlds, still meant to open a gateway to Earth. They’d tried last month and would’ve succeeded if Stefan’s friends Griffin Dare and Valeria Banning hadn’t intervened. That victory had cost Griff dearly.

“Chopper overhead,” Max Wilson reported.

“Stay with me,” Stefan said under his breath.

The mage raiding party had liberated nine humans, two mages, and assorted livestock. Because the use of dark magic left ghouls unable to eat anything other than freshly killed meat or to breed with each other, they kidnapped mages and Mundanes as breeders. And occasionally as snacks, though they usually kept animals for food. Stopping that was damn good work apart from anything the records yielded. Javy didn’t deserve to pay for it with his life.

BOOK: Guardian (The Protectors Series)
4.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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