Outcast Season: Book Two
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Second in the new series from the New York Times bestselling author
Living among mortals, the djinn Cassiel has developed a reluctant affection for them-especially for Warden Luis Rocha. As the mystery deepens around the kidnapping of innocent Warden children, Cassiel and Luis are the only ones who can investigate both the human and djinn realms. But the trail will lead them to a traitor who may be more powerful than they can handle...
WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE
My name is Cassiel, and I was once a Djinn—a being as old as the Earth herself, rooted in her power. I cared little for the small, scurrying human creatures who busied themselves with their small lives.
Things have changed. Now I am a small, scurrying human creature. In form, at any rate. Thanks to a disagreement with Ashan, the leader of the True Djinn, I can only sustain my life through the charity of the Wardens—humans who control aspects of the powers that surround us, such as wind and fire. The Warden I’m partnered with, Luis Rocha, commands the powers of the living Earth.
I have made mistakes, in my short existence as a human. I have made promises I could not keep. I have lost those I learned to love.
I will not let it happen again.
Even if every instinct tells me I must.
So many missing children.
Their faces looked at me from the flat surfaces of posters and flyers, tacked to a long board opposite the row of chairs—a sad parade of even sadder stories.
Although several young girls with brown hair and vulnerable smiles looked back at me, Isabel Rocha’s picture was not on the wall. I found some comfort in that. I will find you, I promised her, as I did each day. On your mother and father’s souls, I will find you.
I had allowed her mother and father to be murdered. I would not allow Isabel to share the same fate.
I sat with Luis Rocha in the hallway outside of the offices of the FBI, which he had carefully explained was a place where I could not, for any reason, cause trouble. I failed to understand why this hallway should be different from any other in the city of Albuquerque, but I had agreed, with a good bit of annoyance.
Luis was in no mood to debate with me. “Just do it,” he snapped, and then fell into a dark, restless silence.
I watched him pace in front of me as his dark gaze took in the wall of photos, a tense, revolted expression on his face. He stopped, and the expression altered into a frown. He pointed one flyer out to me. “That’s Ben Hession’s kid. Ben’s a Fire Warden.”
I nodded, but I doubt he noticed. He lowered his finger, but his hands formed into fists at his sides, emphasizing the sinuous flame tattoos licking up and down his arms. Once again, I wondered at the choice; Luis Rocha controlled Earth, not Fire. In that, he and his brother Manny had been alike, though Luis’s power outstripped Manny’s by leagues.
Manny had been my Warden partner, assigned to me by the highest levels of his organization to teach me to live as human and use my powers—for I still had some, although nowhere near as many as I had as a Djinn—usefully. How to become a Warden in my own right. Manny had been a sweet, patient soul who had given of himself to sustain me in this new life.
And I had let him die. Now it was Luis’s responsibility to look after me, and mine to never allow such a thing to happen again.
A tired-looking man in a rumpled suit stepped outside of his office and gestured to us. As he did, his coat swung open to reveal the holstered butt of a gun attached to his belt. For an ice-cold instant I had an unguarded memory, a sense-memory of the shock and rage washing over me as I watched the bullets strike Manny, strike Angela . . .
It’s a memory I don’t care to relive.
Something must have changed in my face or my manner, because his altered in response. His eyes sharpened their focus, narrowing on me, and his hand moved closer to his body. Closer to the weapon.
I looked away, at Luis. “He has a gun,” I said.
“He’s FBI,” Luis told me, and folded his arms across his chest. “He has to carry one. It’s a tool for him.”
“I don’t like it,” I said. He shrugged.
The FBI man stared at me as if I had said or done something that alarmed him, then transferred his attention back to Luis. “Luis Rocha?”
Luis nodded and walked toward him. I rose to follow. “That’s Cassiel,” he said. “You might have heard.”
“I heard,” the FBI man said. “I just didn’t believe it. Guess they weren’t kidding.” He offered me a half-nod—not a welcome, just an acknowledgment. I returned it exactly. “Inside. I don’t want to talk in the hall.” He looked right and left, as if someone might be listening although no one was in view except the silent, sad wall of photographs. Luis moved ahead of him into the office.
I stopped for a moment to lock gazes with the man again. He was tall, though only an inch or so taller than I, and whipcord thin. He had a bland, quiet face and dark, oddly empty eyes, as if he hid everything except what he wished me to see. His clothing was just as bland—a plain shirt beneath a plain dark suit and tie.
“Inside,” he repeated. “Please.”
There was something about him I could not explain, something beneath the surface. It occurred to me, finally, as he swung the door shut behind me, closing the three of us within a plain box of a room with tinted windows along one wall. I turned and said, “You’re a Warden.”
“Undercover,” he said. “It pays to have a few of us seeded inside the various intelligence-gathering agencies, so we can keep on top of things. First time I’ve been contacted directly, though.” His gaze found me again, very briefly. “Also the first time I’ve met a Djinn face-to-face.”
“You still haven’t,” I said. “I am no longer a Djinn.” It still hurt to say it.
“You’re not exactly human either, the way I understand it. Close enough for government work,” he said, and indicated the chairs on our side of the plain, institutional desk as he took the battered one behind it. “So, why come to me?”
“Because the FBI investigates cases of missing children,” I said. “And we have a missing child.”
“We,” he repeated a little slowly. “The two of you.”
Luis cleared his throat and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Yeah, well, the missing girl is my niece,” he said. “Cassiel’s an interested party. And my partner.” He let two seconds go by, then added, “Not that way, okay?”
“Okay,” the FBI man said, without a flicker of expression. The nameplate on his desk read SA BEN TURNER. “So tell me what you’ve got.”
I let Luis tell it, in his own way—the abduction of his recently orphaned niece, our pursuit, our discovery that the children of Wardens were being selectively abducted and taken to a hidden location, where they were being trained. Molded.
Turner did not interrupt. Not once. He listened almost without blinking, and when Luis finally paused, he said, “So who is this you’re talking about? What’s their goal?”
Luis looked at me.
“The one who leads them was once a Djinn,” I said. “You would call her Pearl. She . . . is extraordinarily dangerous, and she is insane. As to goals, I think the children—and all humanity—is insignificant to her. Her goal is much larger.”
“Larger,” Turner repeated, and shook his head. “And that’s officially out of my depth. So let the Djinn stop her.”
“They can’t,” I said. “Or won’t. She’s already gained enough of a foothold in this world that she can destroy any Djinn who approaches too closely. I believe that is her goal, to destroy the Djinn and replace them in the Mother’s affections. She would welcome an open war, which is why Ashan ordered me to destroy her power source.”
Turner’s eyebrows rose. “Sounds like a plan. What’s her power source?”
“You,” I said. “Humanity. How do you feel about the plan now?” I let that sit in silence for a moment, then said, “I declined.”
Turner sat slowly back in his chair, staring at me, and then looked over at Luis again. “She’s serious?”
“As fucking cancer,” Luis said. “It’s still her nuclear option, if we can’t get this under control and find a way to stop Pearl.”
“So out of my depth,” Turner muttered, and shook his head. “And you’ve been in touch with Headquarters? Lewis?”
Everybody knew Lewis Orwell, the head of the Wardens organization. Everyone also assumed that Lewis was a sort of magic button to press whenever one wanted a particular outcome. Nonsense. Lewis might be a supremely powerful man, but he was only a man. This was far beyond him, and the Wardens as a whole. They were being used, yes, but Pearl was not interested in them, except as levers to move the world in her direction.
“Most of the high-level Wardens are out of contact, including Orwell,” Luis said. “We’re not going to find the answers there. We’re on our own to deal with this, and that means we have to get creative. That’s why I’m here.”
Turner was looking steadily less comfortable with the turns the conversation was taking. “If your niece is in the system as a missing or abducted child, she’s already getting the full-court press from the FBI as well as local law enforcement,” he said. “What else do you want me to do?”
“Make it your case,” Luis said. “You’re a Warden. These are Warden children. I’ll give you a list of those we’ve identified so far as missing, but there may be more. Maybe a lot more, if some of them were foster children, orphans, nobody to miss them. Here’s the catch: In at least one case we know of, one of the parents was complicit in the kidnapping. They’re recruiting fanatics, and they’ve been successful. Think terrorists, only with potential Warden powers.”
“Christ,” Turner whispered, and briefly shut his eyes. “You’ve got no idea what kind of night sweats I’ve had thinking about that for the last ten years, anyway. We’ve got some contingency plans, but I still don’t think they’re up to the job, not for a serious organization.” He focused attention back on me, speaking directly. “What can you tell me about their organization?”
“Well armed,” I said. “Paramilitary, at the very least. And they’ve recruited some disaffected former Wardens, or possibly artificially enhanced the powers of some who were not gifted enough to be recruited as Wardens in the beginning.”
“Like the Ma’at.”
I nodded. The Ma’at were a separate organization, a kind of shadow of the Wardens, built out of those with some hints of latent power who were not deemed to be either strong enough to train as Wardens, nor dangerous enough to receive the Wardens’ typical treatment for those they rejected—a kind of psychic surgery to rip away their powers. The Ma’at had discovered it was possible to combine powers in groups, especially with the voluntary assistance of Djinn, to right the balance of the forces of the Earth—forces the Wardens seemed often to neglect to keep in the proper proportions.
In a certain way, the Ma’at were the maintenance workers of the supernatural world around us. I had always had a small amount of respect for their efforts—as much as I had ever harbored for any human endeavor, in any case.
“They’re our next stop,” Luis said. “We’re paying a visit to their top guys, seeing if we can get an organized effort around this thing.”
Turner shrugged. “Good luck with that. Okay, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll take your list, start digging, and see if I can make any more connections with missing kids. If you’re right, though, there may be a whole lot of this that’s off the FBI radar right now. How much do you want me to wave the flag?”
“Hard and fast,” Luis said, and stood up to offer his hand for a farewell shake. “We’re going to need every damn advantage we can get if we’re going to make this end well.”
Turner’s eyes flicked to me again, and I knew what he was thinking—not because I could read his thoughts, but because I understood his fears. “No,” I said, in answer to his unvoiced question. “Luis cannot stop me, if I choose to accept Ashan’s assignment and destroy your people. No one can stop me. Agreement is all I need to regain my powers as a Djinn.”
No one could stop me except, possibly, the enemy we all feared.
Turner didn’t offer any kind of commentary about that. He just said, “I’ll make your niece my top priority,” and ushered us out of his office. I followed Luis down the hallway, past all those silent, haunting pictures, to the elevators. He pushed the button, but I kept going, to the sign that marked access to stairs. With a sigh, he fell in behind me.
“You know, we need to talk about your claustrophobia,” he said.
“I am not claustrophobic,” I said. “I do not care for small spaces that operate at the mercy of thin cables and human engineering, and are easily manipulated by my enemies.” The door slammed and locked behind him, sealing us in the silent cool stairwell, and I turned to him on the broad concrete landing.
He looked little different than he had the first moment I had met him—strong and lean, with skin the color of caramel and dark, secretive eyes. Hair worn a bit long around his sharply angled face. On his muscled arms, the flame tattoos caught the light in shadowy flickers.
“You think he’ll help?” I asked. Luis shrugged.
“No idea. But we’ve got to pull every string we can reach.”
“And if he is working for Pearl and her people?”
“Then they know we’re serious. Can’t think that’s a bad thing. They already know we’re not going to quit. I want her to know we’re prepared to take drastic measures if we have to, to stop her.”
Except Luis didn’t believe it. He still, deep down, did not believe that I would shed my human form, rise up as a Djinn, and destroy humanity.
Luis did not know me at all.
“So we go to the Ma’at,” I said, and took the first flight of steps, heading down six floors. “By plane, yes?”
“It’s faster,” he said. “Hopefully, nobody will try to kill us today.”
“That would be a different kind of day.”
In fact, I suspected that someone would try to kill us, possibly even in the narrow confines of the concrete and metal stairs, but we reached the bottom-floor exit without incident, and walked out into the open lobby. We turned in our visitor badges at the security desk and exited through a heavily armored door, out into the Albuquerque afternoon sun. The dry air held the scent of fragrant mesquite wood burning in fireplaces, the sharp bite of pine, the greasy and ever-present stench of car exhaust. Overhead, a jet painted orange and blue climbed the clear sky and left a contrail behind.
Luis and I walked to the distant parking lot where we had left his large pickup truck—black, with dramatic bursts of colorful flames on both sides. He’d recently had it washed and polished, and it shone like ebony in the sun. I thought longingly of my motorcycle, which I’d reluctantly left behind; I preferred the simplicity and freedom of that transportation, not the enclosed space of the narrow metal box. But the windows did roll down, and although the day had grown cool, it was not yet cold.
It would be soon, though.
Before we reached the car, two people stepped into our path—a tall, wide man and a shorter, darker one. They held out black leather cases with gold-washed badges of identification.
I glanced at Luis as we both came to a stop, and he knew what I was asking: comply, or fight and run? I was unimpressed by human authority figures, except that I understood they could complicate my ability to operate in the already complex maze of human existence. Prison would be inconvenient.
Luis held out one hand to me, a clear wait gesture. I held myself ready to follow his cues.
“Detectives,” he said, and nodded to the two men. “How can we help you?”
“You can get your ass up against the truck,” the shorter one said. “Hands on the hood. Feet apart. You two, Pink.”
He was referring, I assumed, to the fading shade of pink that still clung to my pale hair. I had not yet decided whether or not to scrub the last of it away, or renew it into a hot blaze of magenta. The contempt in the way he addressed me made me want to turn his hair into a burning pink bonfire.
I smiled, instead, and as Luis moved to obey the orders, I did as well, placing my hands on the cool, slick finish and spreading my feet to a distance of about a shoulder’s width. When the shorter detective stepped up behind me, I said, very quietly, “I don’t enjoy being touched.”
“She’s not kidding,” Luis said. “You really don’t want to test her on that.”
“Got to pat you down for weapons,” the detective said. “And if you resist, I’ll Taser your fine albino ass and haul you to the county jail. Is that clear?”
“Oh man,” Luis sighed. “Just roll with it, okay?”
I supposed he meant that for me. I wasn’t quite certain what he wanted me to do, but I gathered, from the way he caught and held my eyes, that he wanted me to do nothing.
So, with a great deal of distaste, I allowed the stranger to put his hands on me, moving up my sides, across my back, down my legs and back up between them. Calm, I told myself. Remain calm. That was a great deal harder than I’d expected, but by continuing to stare hard into Luis’s wide, dark eyes, I found a certain measure of balance.
The detective stepped back. “She’s clean. Okay, your turn, Rocha.”
Luis smiled, very much as if he was used to this sort of treatment. “No problem. I know you enjoy this kind of thing.”
That drove whatever good humor there had been in the stranger completely away, and he slammed Luis forward with the bar of his forearm against Luis’s back, crushing him against the hood of the pickup truck.
I leaned back, taking my weight off the balls of my feet, and said, “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Shut up, punk,” the older, broader man said. “Hands on the hood. Hands on the hood!”
“Why?” I didn’t comply. As much as I hated being touched and treated with contempt, my fury was well and truly ignited now not for myself, but for Luis. The shorter man was slapping his hand down Luis’s sides and legs with more violence than he’d shown me. “What have we done?”
“You think I need a reason to roust a Norteño asshole?” he shot back. “Think again.”
“I’m not Norteño,” Luis gritted out, face still smashed against the truck. “Haven’t been for years. Better get a new playbook, detective.”
“If you’re not Norteño, then why did the gang shoot up your brother and sister-in-law? Just for the fun of it?”
“I left. They didn’t like it. I just got back in town. You can check it out.”
The older man nodded to the younger, who let Luis go and stepped back. Luis got himself upright again and stepped back from the truck turning to face the two men. “What’s this about?” he asked.
“You.” The older man pointed at me. “Name.”
“Leslie Raine,” I said. It was as good as any, and I had Warden-produced identification to prove it was mine.
“Where you from?”
“Yeah, you look like a fucking native.” He dismissed me and turned back to Luis. “What are you doing hanging around the Federal Building?”
“I’m not hanging around,” Luis said. “We just came from seeing the FBI. Special Agent Turner. He’ll verify that.”
The two men exchanged a fast, unreadable look. “How’s an asshole like you rate time with a fed?”
“It’s not your business,” I said, with all the cold hauteur an eternity of being immortal had taught me.
That got me a longer appraisal from both men. “So what are you, some kind of a fed? Rocha’s some kind of informant?”
I smiled, slowly. “Do you really want to talk about this here? In the open?”
On the street, people were slowing down in cars to stare at us; in a storefront opposite, someone stood still, taking a photograph with his cell phone. I sent a pulse of power over the distance between us, squeezing metal and glass, and the phone gave a sad little electronic pop and died. The man frowned at his dead device and shook it impotently, as if he could shake life back into it. Then, seeing my expression, he quickly moved on.
I don’t like it when people stare.
Whether the two policemen believed me or not, they opted for caution. The older one nodded, and the younger one walked to a anonymous gray sedan nearby and opened the back door. “Inside,” he said.
“Are we under arrest?”
“Why? You got something we ought to arrest you for?”
I shrugged and got into the car. Luis took the opposite side, and the two doors thumped closed as the policemen moved to the front. Immediately, I began to feel constricted. This car was not as fragrant as most, but it was still deeply unpleasant, redolent of plastic, hot metal, unwashed flesh, and old food. I studied the interior door. There were no release handles; however, I comforted myself that this would hardly slow either of us down, should we choose to leave. Earth Wardens are not easily caged; Djinn, no matter how humiliated and cast out, even less so. But there are disadvantages to having such powers; for one thing, one cannot always find a useful way to apply them.
The policemen entered the car. It was warm inside, though not oppressively so; still, I felt stifled, and panic rose inside me. I closed my eyes tightly and concentrated on breathing, pushing air in and out of my fragile lungs, trying not to imagine what it might be like to be robbed of air, of breath.
“Hey, what’s wrong with your friend?” the smaller detective asked. I didn’t open my eyes. “You ain’t gonna puke, are you? If you do, you’re cleaning it up.”
“She doesn’t like cars,” Luis said. “Especially ones that stink like last night’s drunk tank. Now that we’re away from prying ears, what the hell do you want?”
The larger detective turned around, arm over the back of the seat, and said, “You’re an Earth Warden, right?”
I opened my eyes for that. Luis didn’t react in the slightest, not even by a change in his heart rate or respiration. “No idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “I do environmental work. Big business these days, you know? Thinking green and all that.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You’re a Warden.”
Luis didn’t say anything, just watched him. The big man finally sighed and ran a square hand over his face.
“I know all about it,” he said. “Shit, you people made a big freaking splash all over the television, remember? Besides, my sister-in-law’s one of them Weather Wardens. Beatrice Halley. Works out of Chicago, does stuff with the lakes up there.”
Luis sat back a little. “I know Bea Halley,” he said. “You must be Frank Halley. She said her brother-in-law was a cop.”
“Yeah, well, she don’t like me much, and the feeling’s mutual, but whatever. This ain’t about that.”
“So what is it about?”
“I got a job for you,” Halley said. “Sick kid.”
A shadow passed over Luis’s face. I knew he hated saying no to people, but at the same time, Earth Wardens didn’t normally agree to healing for the general public. It was harsh, but necessary; if word got out about what they could do, it would bring an endless stream of sufferers to their doorsteps, and it would prevent them from carrying out their larger duties.
“I know it’s not normal,” Halley said, “but this kid’s kind of special. She showed up half starved, dehydrated, with nasty case of infection; no family, no missing kid bulletin out on her. She’s about five years old.”
Hope flared hot in Luis’s eyes, and I know it must have registered in my expression as well. “No name?”
“She’s too sick to talk.”
Halley was, I believed, deliberately vague as to details. He was allowing Luis’s desperation to fill in information.
I thought I understood why. “This girl,” I said. “She is not Isabel Rocha. You wish us to think she could be, to bring Luis face-to-face with her. You believe he could not refuse once he saw her, even if she isn’t his niece.”
Halley and his partner stared at me. I didn’t blink.
“Yeah,” Halley finally said. “That’s true. Look, the kid’s in bad shape. They’ve tried all the treatments, even the IV antibiotics. She’s dying. I figure you’re about the only shot she’s got left, unless Saint Joseph works a miracle.” He paused, studying Luis. “You a religious man?”
“I been to mass a time or two.” He was, in fact, much more religious than that; I’d heard him praying, from time to time, that we would find Isabel. Or avenge her. “Why?”
Halley shrugged. “Always wondered is all. You Wardens, you’re practically gods, what with all the slinging lightning bolts and healing the sick. Bea ain’t religious. So I just wondered.”
“We’re not any kind of gods, big G or small,” Luis said. “Ain’t even angels, man. We’re just people. Smart Wardens know that better than anybody. You play God, people die.”
Halley looked like he wanted to keep on talking, but I broke in to say, “If the girl is as sick as you say, we shouldn’t waste time.”
Both policemen looked startled, although they covered it quickly. “So you’ll go?” Halley asked, and started the car’s engine.
“Of course he’ll go,” I said, without so much as a glance at Luis. The bond between us was strong enough that I had no doubts of it; I wouldn’t have doubted it in any case, because it was exactly the sort of thing Luis would do, whether or not it was wise. “You should have just asked.”
Halley rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Shoulda thought of that.”
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