InvisibleFears_150The Third Alex Noziak Novel

 

CHAPTER 1

Freetown, Sierra Leone: 0900 hours

Life sucked and then you died. Not that I wanted to believe that but it was all too easy here in Western Africa. Freetown, the sinkhole capital city of Sierra Leone, where I wiped sweat off my neck with one hand as I tried to breathe shallowly, combined big city congestion with its own pungent aroma. The overwhelming smell permeated everything. It made the Schnowaske Rendering Plant near Dubuque smell like lavender.

But it could be worse. Not sure how, but that was me, look on the bright side. My parents had raised me that way and it worked. Most days. Today I had a few doubts.

I’m Kelly McAllister, former kindergarten teacher, current IR operative, I for Invisible, R for Recruit, and not sure, not sure at all if I should have agreed to this mission. Okay, I jumped at the chance. But should I be leading it? No way. Not that I’d tell anyone that, because as long as my teammates were willing to follow me, I’d lead.

That was a lie. I was leading it because as leader, I could slide in my own agenda with less fuss. Call a spade a spade because hiding from the truth only nipped your backside.

All around me corrugated tin roofs streaked with blood red rust, jam-packed streets with deteriorating cars that vied with wood carts for supremacy, thousands of people, all shouting in a mixture of pidgin English, Temne and Mende tongues. Sticky heat and dust coated every surface as the wet season was officially over and the hot dry weather just beginning.

As far as I could tell—there weren’t any nasty preternaturals trying to kill us, not a djinn, demon or very angry Were in sight. Which was a plus. My silver ring, created to alert us agents to preternaturals closeby, was still cool.

Warmth meant preternaturals and heat meant they were real close. Down side, the rings couldn’t tell us if we were rubbing shoulders with a benign garden sprite or stepping on the toes of a Durian demon, a half-human offspring of a killer demon. A lot of serial murderers had some Durian demon blood in them, which was enough to scare the willies out of me.

So far today, the ring had remained cool to mid-warm. I took that as a positive sign as I watched a middle-aged man cough up a wad of spittle and hack it on the wall of a rusted building. Gross.

How had my sister ever survived three years living, breathing and working in this country? The fact Carrie also died here two years ago was another issue. No, not died, was murdered, but then I’d only learned that small, gut-wrenching detail days ago from our agency director, Ling Mai. I’d asked for the truth and she’d given it to me, both barrels right between the eyes. Still not enough time to absorb it, if such a thing were possible.

”Kelly, you there?” Mandy, my fellow IR operative, broke through my dark thoughts. Thoughts the rest of the team would never believe I owned. Static stretched Mandy’s voice over the ear bud I was wearing, her words scratchy and wavy.

As I adjusted my ear mic, I nodded and pasted an I’m-trying smile at the throngs of small children shadowing my every step like a locust swarm, their voices shouting, “Poo-mui.”

Within minutes of landing at Lungi airport and hearing that same word a hundred times, I quickly understood the term meant foreigner. In other words, an easy mark. Kids always could see straight through a person.

”Kelly?” Mandy’s voice nudged me again.

”Here.” As long as I kept moving my head, few noticed I was also moving my lips. Scanning the area came naturally too; there was so much to see, to weigh and measure, to simply absorb. One part of me wanted to soak it all up like the wide-eyed tourist I pretended to be. My default role on several missions.

The other part of me wanted to do my team proud on my first lead op. And then there was that hidden part of me, so roiling with anger, pain, and betrayal, it burned a raw, deep hole in my heart.

“You . . . there?” Mandy repeated, her tone garbled.

Technically, Mandy had the cushy part of this operation, sitting back in the Mammy Yoko hotel. Cleanish rooms, not too much fungus in the showers, and the air conditioning even worked—sometimes. At least Mandy wasn’t in the din of central Freetown. Between the constant police whistles, taxi horns, bawling cattle and squawking chickens, it was amazing any of the team could hear Mandy’s check-in calls.

If I saw something that we needed to act on, I was to report to Mandy and she would report to my other two team members on the ground, Jaylene and Nicki.

Not that there were a lot of orders being issued. Keep an eye on the Church of the Good Shepherd’s husband and wife missionaries, Hubert Wilburforce and his wife, Gracie. They were our strongest and only lead to something called an orkeos. Vaughn, our team leader said that was a fancy Latin name for an orchid.

Yup, we were sweating and skulking around after a plant. Our team didn’t have a lot of intel about exactly where the orchid was, except it was supposed to be located in the southern part of the country, and the Missionary Wilburforces were among the few who knew about it and its location.

Lots of rumors floated around about the orchid, but we didn’t need vague hints; we needed hard facts to locate and retrieve it, if possible. If not, we’d destroy it so it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Why couldn’t we just go up and ask the Wilburforces where to find the thing was something new girl on the team, Nicki suggested. Right now it seemed like a really good idea.

Except, if there was one thing I’d learned in my short time as a covert agent, it was nothing is ever simple. Especially if it was meant to sound that way.

That’s how Ling Mai, and M.T. Stone, agency instructor, described this mission. Follow these two missionaries without spooking them. Tell no one. Keep a wary eye out for others seeking the same thing. Locate and retrieve the orchid.

Not a glamorous mission, but after our last one, which left M.T. Stone bandaged from a dislocated shoulder and broken ribs, Mandy still recovering from a broken arm, and Alex, my best friend in the group, killed and then brought back to life, we needed something without shifters, Weres, druids and demons. You know, simple.

I glanced skyward as if offering a prayer, though my parents would be appalled that I even considered asking for life to be easier. Even for some breathing room. We took what was given to us and made the best of the bad times.

Too bad Mom and Dad didn’t know how bad the bad times could be once you started fighting preternatural beings who came right out of the bad fairy tale books. The really bad ones.

Knowing preternaturals existed was the reason for our team. Unlike most humans, we were aware there were others among us. Goodness, even some on the team were different. Alex was a witch/shaman who now had shifter abilities, Mandy could cross over to the spirit world, Nicki was a cougar shifter and me? Well, I was just a freak. I could turn invisible.

Sounds like a neat gift, and I knew we should be grateful for all of our gifts, and uniqueness, but . . . what good was having a totally uncontrollable talent that made me wink out when I got too scared or stressed and then, when I’d reappear, I’d be literally blind for twice as long as I’d been gone? That and the doors that made me shudder even thinking about them.

I pushed aside the dark thoughts knowing full well I was a walking disaster waiting to happen.

So where was the bright side? I couldn’t kill anyone with my gift. Well, I hadn’t so far. That time might come and sooner rather than later if my plans here in Africa worked out.

In the meantime Stone; team leader Vaughn, who was healing from an earlier dust up; and Alex weren’t even in Africa. Stone and Vaughn were back at team headquarters in Maryland, helping set up a new training program for younger recruits. Alex was off for some R&R time. I sure hoped she got it. She’d earned it from what she’d been through over the last weeks.

Back to the task before me. Shadow the missionary pair. Nothing more. No contact, no interference. No nudges to get them to reveal the orchid’s location. Twenty-four/seven, we’d do what needed to be done and not ask a lot of unwelcome questions. Until they led us to X marks the spot.

That was okay. I’d accepted the temporary parameters of the assignment . . . no, I’d demanded to be part of this mission for my own secret agenda. Yup, good girl Kelly was about to break all the rules and risk everything. Not lightly, not easily, and not without my eyes open.

My private agenda would come once the official IR task was completed. Ling Mai and Stone might have suspected me of wanting to be inserted into Sierra Leone for personal reasons, but they believed I’d do my job. And I would.

After the mission’s completion, well that was another matter. A few days on my own and Operation Personal Payback would be complete. I might no longer be welcome in the IR fold, but one had to do what one had to do.

Kelly, I’m waiting.

Carrie’s voice again, sliding through my thoughts, wanting, demanding. Real? Real enough that I shivered beneath the equatorial sun.

“I’m coming, Carrie,” I whispered out loud.

Make them pay. Make them all pay.

I will. First things first though.

I released a heavy sigh with a rubber-tight smile at the children bobbing around. Yes, my even looking at them kept them pestering me, but I couldn’t help it. Even filthy dirty, with clothes more scraps than coverings, they vibrated with energy, their grins infectious. Just like my last classroom full of kindergartners. Teaching wasn’t a bad career. I could probably pick up again after . . . but I doubted there’d be an after for me. I had a one-year contract with the Agency and breaking that contract came with ramifications. Big ones.

”Target still in sight?” Mandy’s frustrated voice crackled in my ear.

I shifted, raising my camera, tourist style, as I focused my lens on Hubert Wilburforce, the balding, middle-aged white man wearing a suit and sweating buckets. His wife hovered at his side, wearing a small-print cotton dress that looked as faded and worn as she did. With a puckered frown, she examined made-for-outsiders carved masks at an open-air stall.

A suit in this heat—some men were just born to suffer in their own stupidity. The fact the man was white made him stand out like burnooses and caftans would have back in my hometown of Dubuque, but he didn’t have to make life harder by donning the suit. At least the silly man had ditched the tie hours ago. Judging by the red of his face he was near apoplexy.

If he keeled over, would I have to rush over and administer first aid? Yes. That was just plain common sense. You didn’t let a stranger suffer just because they were dumber than dirt. I’d been raised better than that. Besides if he died, the mission would be over. Mine and the team’s.

”Target’s in sight,” I informed Mandy, keeping my voice low but loud enough to be heard over the rattle and clang of a truck backfiring right next to me. “Let’s ask Ling Mai for our next op in some less-humid country. I could go for London about now.” Assuming there’d be a next mission.

Mandy snorted over the headset. “It must be bad out there if the place is getting to you.”

”Not bad. Not really, I—” I caught sight of a white guy lounging against a doorframe, his lean body half-hidden by shadows.

My heartbeat jump-started. It couldn’t be. Not in a million years. Had to be a trick of the liquid sunlight, or because I’d been thinking about Alex Noziak.

This shadow was not her brother, Van. No way.

I couldn’t see a clear picture of him but it was obvious the man was no tourist. Not by the wear-stained khakis he wore or the poised tenseness of his stance, like a spring wound tight and held in check. Van stood like that, as if always on guard, expecting the worst and ready for it. He possessed the animal wariness of his kind because Van was a shifter, a gorgeous wolf shifter.

Think with your head, not your hormones.

Was it Van or someone else? Was the stranger watching the Wilburforces, too? Or were three days in Freetown already getting to me?

”Kelly, there a problem?”

Mandy had picked up on my strangled pause. I cut a quick glance back at the Wilburforces, still haggling. Gracie clutched a worn-leather book in her hands as if a shield, shaking it periodically at the stall owner.

Why were they hanging out in this part of town? It wasn’t the traditional sightseeing area, which made the other stranger’s presence here more interesting, too.

I cleared my dust-dry throat and tried to sound normal, agent normal. “No problem, just a new face on the scene.”

”Describe.”

”Male.” I held off saying all male, even if I thought it. “Late twenties, early thirties. Well-worn black cowboy hat pulled low. Can’t get an unobstructed visual.” Clear enough to get a punch to the solar plexus. Sexy. Dangerous and brooding too—not the kind of male I usually responded to but then I wasn’t scoping him out for myself. It was simply a side benefit.

Do your job, Kelly. Quit reacting to a total stranger. If he was a stranger? I didn’t want to reveal that it might be Van Noziak to Mandy. Not until I was sure. One, she and Alex were oil and water, so even hinting Alex’s brother was in the area could create fireworks. Two, Van was also an agent, for some hush-hush military group, so if it was him, it meant others could be on the track of the orchid. And three, I’d never live down the teasing if Mandy or any of the rest of the team knew I’d had Van Noziak on my mind ever since meeting him less than a week ago.

Man alive, though, he was memorable. Way out of my league but yum, yum delicious.

”Any other clues to his identity?” Mandy asked.

”I’ll wander a little his way.”

For the sake of the mission, nothing more.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

“Don’t lose the Wilburforces.”

Like I had to be told that. Sheesh. Sometimes the team treated me like I was new-corn green. I wasn’t. Well, sometimes. I didn’t know my preternaturals as well as Alex and couldn’t fight like Mandy and Jaylene, and definitely wasn’t a shifter like Nicki, but I wasn’t clueless.

A half dozen steps and I paused. The guy pulled his hat lower over his face. Maybe he just wanted to stay cool. Couldn’t fault him for that. I rubbed a hand beneath my own ponytail, tucked beneath my St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap.

I spoke into my headset. “From what I see he’s rough around the edges. Think Matthew McConaughey, Indiana Jones, or a New York ad agency idea of trouble in khaki.” A perfect description for Van except for his Native American heritage that meant sharp angles to his face, thick, midnight black hair—cut military short, but still made a woman want to touch, and whipcord lean build.

Not that I’d noticed. Much.

“A South African merc?” Mandy broke through my way-off-base thoughts.

“Could be.”

So why was my gut screaming this guy was Van Noziak? Shoot, he was hardly in any condition to be in Freetown. Several weeks ago Weres had captured him, under the orders of a horrible master druid. Last time I’d seen him, shortly after his release, he still looked raw, in spite of his shifter blood. Full-blooded Shoshone wolf shifter. So not the kind of guy to bring home to Mom and Dad.

Not that my hormones were thinking about meet the parents when I thought of him. My only excuse was, hot tamales that man was lethal, in more than one way.

”Can you get a photo of him?” Mandy’s voice broke once again into my over-heated imagination. Which was good. Another few seconds, and I’d be publicly fanning myself and not because of the steamy humidity.

“Will do.”

Acting the blond, blue-eyed tourist did have its advantages. I raised my camera. The man eased further back into the shadows of a block building’s doorway.

Revealing. What kind of person was as aware of me as I was of him? He obviously didn’t want his photo taken, so I clicked a few useless shots of the street as if that had been my original intention. Another glance at the Wilburforces.

Tarnation!

“They’re on the move.” I kept my voice level though my heartbeat kicked up a few notches as I dodged a rusty taxi and angled across the nearest street. How stupid could I be? I’d almost lost my target while ogling someone who may or may not be Van Noziak.

“Heading east toward Sitka Stevens Street.”

“Got you. I’ll have Jaylene intercept and rendezvous there.”

“Roger that.” I adjusted my frequency to connect with my other team member on the streets. “Jaylene, you copy?”

Jaylene’s voice came over the headset. “Kelly Blue-Eyes, I’m here. If some crazy taxi driver doesn’t nail me first, I’ll be with you in a sec. Where’d these yahoos learn to drive?”

If she said anything else I didn’t hear it as a heavy shape slammed into me from behind. I went sprawling on the pavement, twisting as I fell, which meant I landed on my shoulder not my face. Plus I could see what was standing over me—a smere goblin.

CHAPTER 2

Sweet mercy the goblin was ugly. Ugly and vicious.

Tall, taller than most of its kind, but stocky, with drool running from its snarling mouth, its arms longer than the average human, dangling at its side, little piggy eyes glaring at me.

What had I done? Goblins, from what I knew, tended to hide in the shadows, unless they felt threated and everyone on my team knew I was as big a threat as a bowl of tapioca pudding.

“What the—” I started to utter as the goblin swung a heavy burlap bag toward my head.

I rolled sideways, feeling the rush of air past my face as the bag slapped the ground where my head had just been.

Guess the guy didn’t want to chat.

I kept rolling until I slid beneath the raised chassis of a hybrid truck. Not a fuel-efficient hybrid but a vehicle cobbled together from odds and ends.

“Jaylene,” I called into my mic. “Need help.”

“Coming.”

Slam. A meaty hand thudded against the side of the rig, crumpling a front door.

Good for me the goblin was too thick and not agile enough to scamper under the truck. Unfortunately it was just fast enough that no matter where I tried to escape from, there it was with its slap-happy attack. And his fist that weighed enough that if it connected with me, there’d be broken bones or even a crushed skull.

None of the humans in the vicinity seemed to be surprised, or maybe they’d had so much violence in their lives that a crazy goblin man run amuck didn’t warrant a second glance.

I was chugging diesel-tainted air as I worried about my other problem. Get scared or stressed enough and I risked winking out. Which, on second thought might not be a bad idea. If I could convince the goblin I’d disappeared, maybe it’d go away.

“Jaylene, stay back,” I whispered, knowing she’d pick up the message.

“Why?”

“Operation invisible commencing . . . now.”

In a blink I knew I was gone. One second the ugly mug of the goblin was peering at me from where it had crouched beside the truck, and the next-poof—I’d disappeared.

Dragging myself as fast as I could out the opposite side of the vehicle, I jumped to my feet and raced around the nearest corner. I had only fifteen seconds before facing a goblin sounded like a better option. I also needed to find a place I could wink back into existence without alerting anyone and where I could cower until I regained my sight.

Yup, this was the down side of disappearing, being blind for twice as long as I’d been invisible.

Huddled in the doorway of a shop that looked like it hadn’t opened in years, I notified Jaylene where I was.

“Be right there,” came her reassuring reply.

Jaylene was as good as her word as I waited, chugging in breath and thankful the goblin was both slow and dumb and couldn’t track me by smell, which a lot of preternaturals could.

“You okay?” Jaylene spoke right beside me, reaching one hand toward me but not touching as if afraid I’d spook. She was right. Already my sight was returning, the world now in fuzzy shadows clearing by the second.

“A smere goblin,” I said, waiting for the adrenaline rush to work its way through my system.

“What’d you do to piss it off?”

“Me? I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Jaylene snorted. “If it was anyone else but you, I’d say fat chance. But I know you Kelly Blue-Eyes and I’m surprised you didn’t invite him back to the hotel for tea.”

And there lay my challenge. Teammates that saw me as more liability than asset, and clueless to boot. I bit my tongue as I wiped dirt from my hands and made sure we still had our targets in sight.

We did.

“Damn, there’re a lot of people about.” Jaylene shook her head as she looked around.

“Never saw so many black faces.”

I swallowed a small smile. Jaylene was the most stunning, eye-catching black woman I’d ever met, but both of us, and our two other, on-site counterparts, Nicki and Mandy, all noticed the fact that the faces we were seeing in Sierra Leone were not the color of most American blacks. If one could forget the muggy, tropical air, the strange scents on the breeze, and the guttural languages spoken everywhere, the faces alone would have told us we weren’t in familiar territory.

“You all right, Blue-Eyes?” Jaylene asked, her voice low, her attention, like mine, keeping an eagle eye zeroed in on the targets. “This place getting to you?”

I shook my head. Of all my fellow operatives, Jaylene alone knew the real reason behind my insisting on being part of this op—before I’d been tapped to lead it which only added more pressure. Knew but didn’t condone.

“I’m fine.”

“Sure you are.” Jaylene gave another unladylike snort. “It’s me you’re talking to here. So talk. You aren’t still planning on hightailing it off to some hick, back-of-beyond spot in the south as soon as you can, to fix something that can’t be fixed. Your sister’s dead. Let her be.”

No, I’m not . . .

I mentally ignored Carrie as I glanced at my teammate, my jaw tensing, my breath clogging. “Carrie shouldn’t have died. Not the way she did. A man is walking free not a hundred miles from here—”

I inhaled a gulp of humid air as I wrestled my anger into submission. Not an exercise I normally had to do. “This is my business, not agency business, and not your business.”

“Wanna bet, girlfriend? What you’re planning to do will get you kicked off the team. And if Ling Mai or Stone even get a whiff of your plans—”

“You haven’t said anything—”

“Course not. I’m on your side.” Jaylene wiped sweat from her forehead. “Even if it’s a fool’s errand,” she added beneath her breath.

“Fool or not, it’s my business.” Each word a twist to my stomach. I loved being an IR agent. Being recruited into the agency only a few months ago had given me purpose and meaning after my sister’s . . . I swallowed deeply . . . after Carrie’s senseless death. A death attributed to disease until Ling Mai told me otherwise. A discovery still turning my world upside down.

Now I had a choice. Complete the IR mission in Sierra Leone and walk away, or do something about the killer who shot Carrie in cold blood and was even now a free man.

Goody-two shoes, it’s time to go hunting.

I knew what choice I’d already made.

CHAPTER 3

As we brushed shoulders standing on that bustling Freetown street, Jaylene’s tone might have sounded nonchalant, but I knew better. Her expression looked wary, fine lines between her brows, her lips in a razor straight line as she asked, “You know what you’re going to do with this guy if you manage to track him down?”

Kill him.

No return from that step even if it’s what Carrie wanted.

“No.” I sort-of hedged as I rotated tight shoulders. Lying was a sin. My parents had taught me that through and through. They’d also taught me that I must be the devil’s own, given what I could do, that whole invisible thing. With the rage of my thoughts roiling through me, they might be right about that. “I’ll deal with what to do with Carrie’s killer when I find him.”

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

Quiet, Carrie.

“You know girl, some folks can do revenge. You’re not one of them.”

Fat lot that Jaylene knew.

“I think anyone with enough cause can exact revenge.” Even to my own ears my voice sounded priggish and tight.

So pinch me.

“I’m just saying, Teach, that revenge is a two-edged sword.” Jaylene’s mouth line tightened. “It can bite both ways.”

“I can handle what needs to be done.”

“Just don’t be surprised when push comes to shove. Sometimes, for some folks, it’s better to simply walk away.”

My answer was swallowed as Jaylene nudged my arm. “Look, our pigeons are on the move again.”

Both of us focused a hundred percent on the targets now bobbing in and out of the crowds. But they didn’t look in a hurry. We’d gone back to babysitting mode.

“I’ll follow.” I adjusted my daypack. “You grab some lunch and then they’re all yours.”

“You sure?”

“No problem; it’s not like I have anything else to do in this place.”

Not yet. One mission at a time.

“Be my guest.” Jaylene nodded toward Hubert Wilburforce’s retreating back. “I’ll be with you as soon as I grab something I can eat while moving.”

I nimbly scooted around a donkey cart and headed in the direction of the Wilburforces, toward one of Freetown’s most well-known sights: a giant baobab tree, humongous thick trunk, its over-arching limbs shading an entire traffic circle. The tree anchored not only the concrete whitewashed wall surrounding it, but was large enough to see from blocks away.

That wasn’t the reason the tree was famous though.

The locals called it the witch bird tree. Whispered stories promised that, if you looked into the highest limbs and saw the fluttering of witch capes, then it meant you had a witch in your belly.

A burning, driven, revenge-seeking witch.

Maybe that’s why the tree made cold sweat break out on my skin and my stomach do a quick free fall.

Freetown natives said if you did see the witch capes, and you plucked one from the tree, it’d give you magical powers.

I could use a lot of that real soon. Magic like Alex Noziak had, that could help the team.

Not for the first time I wondered why I wasn’t born with a useful gift. Wondered why I’d been born at all. Born an oddity with no idea why I could turn invisible, or what good it could do and something I still tried to hide from my parents as a subject best left alone.

Did I dare look closely at the tree? If I did, was I brave enough to reach for a cape? No to both. My parents preached against giving evil an inroad to one’s soul, and magic—in their eyes was a super highway to evil. One I was already on because of my cursed ability.

Good thing I’d never tell them about Alex, a blood-born witch.

With another small shiver, I glanced over my shoulder. Was that a glimpse of khaki man again or my imagination? I paused, keeping an eye on the Wilburforces doing a two-step ahead of me, but no stranger in khaki appeared. Funny I hadn’t already mentioned him to Jaylene. Time to get my head back in the game.

I’d almost reached the baobab tree, chickening out and averting my gaze, when Jaylene’s voice came over the headset.

“Kelly, still have the assets?”

“Roger that. Half a block west of the tree.”

“That place gives me the willies. Witch craft mumbo jumbo.”

“Other’s beliefs are just that and—” I swallowed my next words, mentally kicking myself. “Forget I said that.”

“Yeah, you’re sounding like teacher lady. Again.”

“Copy.”

Jaylene often complained to me that I was either lecturing her or doing the cup-half-full routine. Was it my fault I liked to share and think positive? Alex called it warm-and-fuzzy thinking; Jaylene called it warm-and-get-yourself killed thinking. I preferred optimistic. But that was before I’d learned about what really happened to Carrie, who’d been shot while protecting children, though Ling Mai said some of the details were vague.

There hadn’t been a lot of warm thoughts since.

With a quick scan of the street ahead, I caught sight of a wilted suit jacket.

“Jaylene, the quarry is stopping beneath the tree, north east corner.” Why there? They weren’t even looking at the fluttering scraps of ragged white cloth overhead, but glancing at their watches. What were they waiting for? Or who?

The Wilburforces were still simply standing and biding their time when Jaylene arrived a few minutes later.

“Man, and to think I once wanted to baby-sit,” she mumbled as I updated her, in spite of there not being a lot to report.

Hearing Jaylene’s comment made me hesitate. Rumors were Jaylene had grown up on the streets of Chicago, abandoned by her family at an age not much older than the kids swarming around us now. The other woman rarely mentioned her background and the whole team flat out knew sympathy wouldn’t be tolerated. So why the revelation? Tit for tat? Jaylene knew about my real agenda, so maybe she felt more comfortable sharing.

It was going to be hard to lose my teammates if I went after Carrie’s killer.

You’ve got to do it, Kelly. Don’t let me down.

I won’t Carrie. You’re my only sister and you know I’ll set things right for you.

I stuffed down all other issues as I opened the comm channel to the hotel. “Mandy? Jaylene’s got the assets. I’m on my way back to you.”

“Copy that. Have Jaylene check in at fifteen minute intervals unless the quarry starts moving again.”

“Got it.”

“Oh, and Mandy,” I added as an afterthought, “the quarry has been looking funny.”

“Laugh kind of funny or something else?”

“A whole lot of time-wasting, wandering without purpose.”

“Meaning?”

“I don’t know, just a feeling something’s up. Thought you should know. Over and out.”

I switched my mic to low volume as opposed to off, preferring to remain in contact with Mandy, Jaylene and Nicki until I reached the hotel. None of them had any problems walking the rough crowds, jostled here and there, but the hustle and bustle of strangers in a big city wasn’t my cup of tea. First day I’d almost gone hoarse from saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’ so many times, before Jaylene pulled me aside and gave me a few ground rules.

First—no apologies; none were expected. Second—keep my daypack tucked up front; on my back it made too tempting a target. Sierra Leone was the sixth poorest country in the world and I looked like an easy mark anyway. Third—no being a soft-hearted sponge and giving money to the beggars; it only encouraged more beggars. Fourth—think operative first, school teacher second. I wasn’t here to save or fix lives. I was here to do a job. And fifth—if any of the rules were not clear, I was to report to Jaylene immediately, who’d then set me straight.

I smiled. Jaylene might like to think of herself as bad assed but I could see right through her. She was a marshmallow—a six-foot, ass-kicking marshmallow, but still a marshmallow. A lot like Alex, and both of them would hate me if I ever said the words out loud.

I wended my way back toward the hotel, covering barely a block when the hand of a blind beggar grabbing my pant leg caused me to stumble and stop.

“Nicey, white lady, do ya help me small-small?” He grinned through toothless gums, his face so creased with wrinkles it looked like old parchment paper.

“How’d you know I was white and female if you’re blind?” I asked, my tone less kind than I meant. Maybe a little of Jaylene was rubbing off on me.

“Funny lady.” The man gave a stomach-rubble of a laugh. “You smell too good, I sabby dat. You no sabby talk Kiro, me talk de English. American money fine more den leone money. Do you, lady nice, help me small-small?”

I roughly translated his words to mean he could speak English, a not uncommon occurrence. In Freetown most locals spoke Kiro, derived from Creole, French, Portuguese and English and brought with the freed-slave settlers from England in the late eighteenth century. I think he was proud of the fact he could speak enough English words to make himself understood and he was doing so for my benefit. That and the fact he was willing to take U.S. currency instead of the Sierra Leone leones. Smart beggar.

I glanced around, sure Jaylene was going to realize that I was about to break rule number three. Or was it four? Either way, what could it hurt? I reached into my fanny pack for a few Sierra Leone paper leones and stuffed them in the old man’s cup.

“I tell God tank ya, pretty lady.” The blind man quickly pocketed the bills. “Yo husband will be strong, fast man and you will bear many peekins. And those peekins will bear many more peekins and you will die with a smile on your face. God will watch over you forever. God took my eyes but gave me the power to see and you is to be blessed fo’ helping meself.”

“Thank you.” I straightened, wondering if he told every woman she’d have many children, but the man’s hand stopped me again.

“Pretty lady, yo be careful. Dark hale.”

“Hale?” I asked, intrigued more by his tone than his patter.

“Bad ju-ju. Medicine.” He nodded sagely, a gnarled hand patting the pocket where he’d stashed the bills I’d just given him, as if afraid his words would make me steal them back. “Poo-mui find dark witch gnaw from inside. Bad.”

Great, now even the beggars were giving me advice.

The man cocked his head. “Yu needs help. Friends be enemies and enemies be friends. Da turtle wants to box, but his arms are too short.”

A Kiro tribal proverb no doubt, as every other sentence from a local seemed to be a proverb. Not that I had a clue what it meant. Most used proverbs as a way to explain a precarious life that hadn’t improved much since the first freed slaves had arrived to colonize the country.

I knew I was ignoring his other words, the ones tensing my muscles as I tugged my leg away. I didn’t want to be rude but he was making the hair along my neck stand up. “Thank you, but I’ve got to be go—”

The man’s voice darkened, as a thundercloud over the sun. “No go south, lady. Very bad. Truth not always best.”

He had to be in cahoots with Jaylene. No way would he know the man I sought lived south, in a town called Zimmi. Or that the orchid was also south.

Time to move along.

“You have a nice day,” I said, an automatic response before I scanned the sidewalk ahead.

How many more blind or lame or armless men to encounter? One of the favorite practices of the previous regime in recruiting new soldiers was to enter a village and cut off the hands, arms and legs of anyone not prepared to join the army. As a recruiting incentive it worked well, while leaving another legacy of brutality and misery for these people who’d already suffered too much.

“Rule number four, I can’t save the world,” I mumbled as I walked away, aware Mandy could hear the words if I spoke much louder.

Less than half a block later Jaylene’s voice broke through over the transmitter.

“Kelly, you there?”

“Copy.” I used my hand to cover my mouth.

“The quarry has been lost. Do you hear? The quarry has been lost.”

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