Autumn Whispers (Page 16)

So two lawyers, a coffee shop, a couple unknowns, and a maintenance room. There was no sign that anybody saw me, but as I headed back to the elevator, two women who had been in the coffee shop were making their way into one of the elevators. They were giving Camille and Shade a long look, but then went back to whispering and laughing. As the doors shut, I quickly rejoined the others.

“Gerald Hanson’s office must be on one of the upper floors.” Camille frowned, looking around.

“Anything at all?” I looked at Camille. “If you can’t sense anything, nobody can.”

She sighed, then closed her eyes again and leaned back against the wall. A moment later, she shook her head. “Sorry.”

“Shade?” I turned toward my fiancé. “What about you?”

He shrugged. A moment later, he softly said, “There are ghosts here, but they feel lost rather than angry or dangerous. I can’t pinpoint them, nor can I sense anything else. But I can tell you this: I believe there’s something blocking energy. Or rather, blocking the identification of energy. I sense a force field of some sort.”

“Force field? Usually people put up a force field when they want to keep prying eyes out of their business. Can you sense the nature of it at all?” I frowned. Too bad Iris was out of commission. She was really good with things like force fields and illusion spells. Morio had some talent at it, but Iris was the one who was our expert. But right now, not such a good time to call her up.

Shade pursed his lips, then closed his eyes. After a moment, a breeze ran through the hallway but I was able to recognize that it was off the astral. Thinking Shade was responsible, I turned to him but he looked deep in trance and I didn’t want to disturb whatever he was doing. I looked at Camille, touching her arm, and she nodded.

With a shiver, Shade’s eyes flew open and he looked around nervously. “I think we’d better get out of here. I can’t tell you why just yet, but this is not a safe place to be until we’ve done more research. Seriously, you and Camille? You need to leave this place. Now.” And with that, before we could speak, he slipped his arms around both our shoulders and pushed us back down the hallway toward the coffee shop.

We had almost reached the front door when my stomach lurched. I stopped at the same time as Camille, and subtly turned to look over my shoulder. She did the same.

Behind us, entering the shop from the hallway through which we had just retreated, was a man. He looked human enough, but there was something about him that was hard to pinpoint. He was suave—very suave, dressed in a suit that, from hanging out with Chase, I recognized as Ralph Lauren. The man had paired slim black dress trousers, which looked like expensive jeans, with a black leather sport coat. Beneath the coat, he was wearing a cobalt blue V-neck cashmere sweater that made his golden tan pop.

The man had incredible features. His tan looked so natural that I couldn’t tell if it was his normal skin color, from the sun, or a very expensive tanning bed. And his hair was shaved close—not so that he was bald, but his buzz cut worked. The shape of his head seemed symmetrical and I found myself focusing on the tattoo showing through the pale layer of hair. I couldn’t see from here what the ink portrayed, but it covered his head.

When I caught his gaze, his eyes stopped me. Pale green, the color of spring grass, they were ringed with a black halo, and his gaze was arrestingly sharp. He stared at me, then his gaze flickered over Camille and Shade, and he slowly, deliberately, headed in our direction.

I wanted to run. Panic welled up in my throat and, not knowing where it was coming from, I tugged on Camille’s arm. She, too, looked alarmed. Shade must have noticed our reactions because he stepped between the approaching man and us.

“How do you do?” The man held out his hand. “I hope you’re enjoying our little establishment here.”

Shade nodded, ignoring the outstretched hand, but he did so with a smile to disarm. “We were about to leave, but yes, we needed coffee and happened to notice the Café o’ Lait.”

The man regarded Shade with quiet consideration. After a moment, his lips turned up at the corner, and once again, he glanced at Camille and me. “You have very lovely companions.”

I could tell that Camille had taken an instant dislike to the man. As she opened her mouth to speak—no doubt to say something charmingly rude—I nudged against her, trying to shut her up. But Shade beat her to the punch.

“I’m afraid we have to be going.” He smoothly turned and, once again, propelled us forward.

As we neared the door, the man behind us called out, “Please, do come again. And bring your lady friends. We always enjoy having beautiful customers grace our halls.”

And then, we were out, crossing the street toward the parking lot. None of us spoke, but I was incredibly grateful that Shade was behind us. And I was also thankful that we’d parked in a lot, where it wouldn’t be immediately apparent which car we were getting into.

The minute we settled ourselves in the Lexus, I noticed Camille began to shake. “What’s wrong?”

“That man, he scared the fuck out of me. He’s not human, I know it. He’s nowhere near human. I think he might be daemon but I can’t be sure. But . . . his energy? He’s as dangerous as he is gorgeous. And that charisma he has? It’s natural—like our glamour. There was no magic being used there.” The words spilled out of her in a rush, and she clutched the steering wheel.

“She’s right. He does have a natural charm.” Shade looked around the lot. “And he is dangerous. Which is why I didn’t let you say anything. We do not want to arouse his suspicions, given the building’s nature, nor engage him in anyway—that much I can tell you.”

“Dude, I wasn’t going to be snarky, regardless of what you thought.” Camille let out a long sigh. “I was simply going to tell him thank you and then leave.”

“Either way, we needed to leave there. Fast. It looks like we can exit through the alley there. I’d rather not pull out on the street in case he’s watching. He doesn’t own the coffee shop, I can tell you that. Nobody wearing that suit owns a freaking coffee shop.”

I glanced at them. “There was something seriously wrong about him. I think . . . I think we need to figure out who he is and what his connection with the building is. Because if there’s a daemonic problem like Grandmother Coyote thinks there is, then I’ll bet you anything that he’s a big part of it.”

“How are we going to do that?” Shade asked. “We can describe him to Carter but . . .”

“I’ll tell you how,” Camille broke in. “While he was talking to you, I managed to snap a picture of him with my phone. We can download it at Carter’s and he can perform some of that tech mumbo-jumbo and see if he can come up with a facial recognition of anybody in his files.” She stopped and grinned. “At least, that sounds about right to me.”

“Get a move on, woman. The longer we sit here, the more time he has to come check out our license plate.” Though his voice was gruff, Shade was smiling.

I had to smile too. “I’ll make a detective out of you, yet. You can join my agency.”

“Right. And you can shimmy back into those gold lamé pants Menolly had you in that one time, and go clubbing with Trillian and me.” She snorted, easing the car into the back alley.

• • •

All the way to the park my mind kept racing over the man at the coffee shop. He was dangerous. He was rich. Or could he be married to somebody who’s rich? But no. He exuded power and men like that didn’t give over control to a rich wife. They kept hold of the purse strings, and they had the trophy wives and the eye candy on the arm.

I tried to shake the thought out of my head. We had something to focus on that might yield definitive results. And that would be the park. The rains could easily have washed away footprints, but my guess was that if anything else had been dropped, it would still be there, caught in the tangle of undergrowth. The park was thick with ferns and huckleberries and vine maple that grew between the trees.

When we reached Violet’s cottage, it looked the same as it had. A thought struck me—something I’d done before and gotten Chase pissed out of his mind at me for, but too bad. It was a way to find out what we needed to find out and the only way anybody could bitch at us was if they found out.

I headed to the mailbox. Camille stared at me, a faint grin on her face, as I yanked it open and pulled out the stack of mail. It was obvious that it hadn’t been picked up for a while. I tucked it into the car, Camille locked the doors, and we headed into Violet’s backyard.

Interlaken Park was only a few yards behind the cottage, and a metal fence divided the two. But the fence was low and easy to step over. It would have been just as easy to break down, too.

I swung over it with no problem and so did Shade. But Camille, in her skirt and corset, eyed it with hesitation. It really wasn’t that tall, but she could easily catch any number of laces or hems, or one of those teetering heels on it. Shade laughed and leaned back over the fence, picking her up as easily as he might pick up a feather. He quickly deposited her on the ground next to me.

Camille laughed. “Sorry. I didn’t even think about a fence without a gate. Okay, let’s have a look around. Where’s her bedroom?” She shaded her eyes and gazed back at the cottage. I followed suit.

There—there it was, to the far left corner. And not all that far from here. It wouldn’t be hard at all to see what was going on inside the bedroom if the lights were on and the curtains open. Or if someone had night vision.

I glanced around. “You take that patch over there. Shade, go back a little farther. And I’ll look here. Check under ferns, under bushes, at the base of the trees. Look for footprints, debris—cigarette butts, food wrappers, cups, and the like. Anything that might give us a clue as to whether Violet was being spied on. If she had a stalker, she might have been abducted. And she might have been abducted at home, although Albert thinks her purse is missing.”

“If anybody wanted to rob her via her ATM cards and kidnapped her from home, they would have probably stolen other stuff too. Though her laptop is missing.” Camille shrugged. “Let’s get busy.”

As we combed the area, rain beat steadily down. Camille shrugged her capelet tightly around her shoulders and I turned up my collar. The trees offered some protection, but the drops still filtered through.

The cedars creaked in the wind, and the firs followed suit. The sky was getting progressively darker, even though it was barely past noon. The clouds banked up thick, and looming, and though the rain had been steadily pouring, thunder rumbled through the air. The ground shook with the echo of the clap, as a streak of lightning bolted through the sky, flashing so bright it blinded me for a second. I blinked, shading my eyes, and then began to hunt around. We were relatively safe here, out of the open, and if the storm got worse, we could always leave.

On the west coast of Washington State, the ground is wet most of the year. There’s almost always a layer of moisture trapped in the fallen leaves and needles that turns the trails and soil in forests to a rich mulch-like consistency, which makes—if you’re off trail—twisting an ankle fairly easy. It also creates a thick layer of loose detritus, and if you drop something, half the time it will disappear into the compost. And if you happen to drop something and not notice it . . . well . . . that’s what we were looking for.

The ground here was covered with the usual mixture of sodden leaves, dead fir, and cedar needles that had dropped to make way for new growth next spring, and a plush layer of brilliant green moss. Mushrooms were everywhere—toadstools mostly, but I recognized a chanterelle here and there. Expensive taste treats, but we weren’t here to collect wildcraft edibles.

I knelt down and began pushing the leaves aside, sifting through the mass of debris. The usual mixture of fungi, insects, and banana slugs. The latter were both cool and freaky: six-inch-long funky town mollusks that made their home up and down the west coast, eating plants, leaving a trail of slime.

A spider scuttled across my hand and I shook it away. Ever since my ordeal with the Hunters Moon Clan—a group of hobo werespiders—I tended to err on the side of caution around the eight-legged beasties, but then, before I could dwell on it, something caught my eye. A tamped-out cigarette. I had learned enough from Chase so that I didn’t immediately pick it up, but instead pulled out a plastic baggie and used that to cover my hand as I lifted the butt. No lipstick, but that didn’t mean it had to be a man. I dropped it in a second baggie, and held it up.

“Someone was here. These things don’t just put themselves out. Comb this area thoroughly.” I went back to scavenging and came up with a candy wrapper. Not for a candy bar, but for one of those expensive truffles. I added that to the bag. Then Camille let out a shout and both Shade and I hurried over.

She pointed to a footprint. It was caught in the moist dirt beneath a tree, shaded from the rain. While it was mildly eroded, it hadn’t been washed away. I knelt down, examining it and looking around the nearby area. There was another partial print right near it, half in, half out of the foliage. Enough of it showed to tell me it was the matching print, the other foot.

I frowned. “We should take a cast, I suppose.”

Camille joined me, cautiously squatting down in the mud. “What about calling Chase? He could send out a man to do that and it would be professionally done.”

I glanced at her. “We can’t. Chase would have to open an official file if we called him in and I promised Tad and Albert we wouldn’t do that. Not yet. But if I get enough quick dry cement, we can make our own.”