THE AIR seethed, like a living thing disturbed.
Dust settled from the sky as the roar of the explosion rolled away into the desert. Gradually, the sky cleared, revealing stars. In the sandy haze of dust, a building had blistered open, like an empty shell too weak to hold a great and terrible seed. Chunks of concrete littered the ground, illuminated by weak sparks and fizzles from the severed legs of ruined machinery.
Swimming through the wreckage, dozens of tiny lights milled like fireflies, winking in and out. Unlike fireflies, they burned dark violet, wandering in wayward paths. Undisturbed by the remnants of walls, they glided through twisted I beams as easily as smoke. In bright flashes of light, some flickered out. Others swarmed together, levitating before they vanished with the rushing sound of air, leaving spirals of dust in their wake.
They came from the machine. The hull of the massive mechanism lay open in the darkness. Its skin ripped open by the force of the explosion, wires dangled in heavy tentacles over ruined copper tubing warped into blossoms by the sound. A solenoid switch clicked on and off, on and off, with no circuit to complete. The violet particles rimmed the interior skin of the machine, seething over the steel like the surface of an indigo sun. The machine was like an egg cracked open, pouring life into the night.
But it was not life. The particles drifted away, blazed out, sucking bits of air and time as they disappeared. The faint light illuminated a trace of human wreckage in the debris: a silver watch.
Its face gleamed smooth and unbroken, but the time its hands had measured had stopped. There was no trace of its owner, the man who had keyed the last operating procedure into this apparatus.
No life; no life, at all.
Yet, something more than life. Dim violet sparks crept out into the darkness toward the sounds of distant sirens.
TARA HAD ONCE BEEN ACCUSTOMED TO AWAKENING TO STACCATO knocks on her door in the middle of the night. She had always answered that summons to roll out of bed in razor-sharp readiness back then. She could dress and launch herself beyond the door in less than ten minutes, her case full of notebooks, guns, and more arcane tools of her trade. Sometimes, she could even squeeze feeding the cat into those preparations.
That was a long time ago, but old habits never really went away.
This knock was different, softer. Tara rolled over in bed, her bare feet skimming the floor. Automatically, she reached for the holstered .38 revolver hung behind the headboard, just out of sight, but close at hand. The cat leaped down from the pillow beside her to hide under the bed. Found. Here. How?
Tara’s brow wrinkled. She’d never been disturbed in this place by anything but her own dreams.
The shadows of tree branches stained the floor in abstract chiaroscuro shapes. Melting snow rattled through the forest beyond the exterior walls of the cabin. Tara had hoped to feel the thaw in her bones for weeks now, had watched the ice slip and break under the late-winter sun. Though it was nearly March, the ice would be treacherous to most visitors, and would dissuade them from traveling the hidden dirt road to Tara’s sanctuary. There wasn’t even mail delivery this distant from civilization. For all intents and purposes, the little cabin didn’t exist, forgotten in the buzz and shuffle of the outside world. Tara had hoped some of that forgetting extended to her.
Tara walked noiselessly over the pine floorboards. She knew the location of each squeak, sidestepping them in the dark as expertly as a dancer with an invisible partner. She crossed the cabin’s living area, illuminated only by dull embers in the fireplace worming into the sweet-smelling apple wood.
Again, the knock. Tara touched the door, feeling the vibration echo through the surface. She could close her eyes to it, crawl back into bed. She could pretend she wasn’t here, had never been here, that she hadn’t heard.
But the knock rang with a quiet authority that could not be ignored.
Tara slid back the dead bolt and cracked the door open as far as the chain would allow. She held the gun in her left hand, behind the door, invisible to the caller. She thumbed back the well-oiled hammer with an echoing click. In the dark, the ratchet of a shotgun would have been a more effective deterrent to unwanted visitors, but the sound was still unmistakable. Her hand sweated against the rubber grips, her index finger grazing the stainless steel trigger guard.
“Yes.” Her voice felt rusty. It had been a very long time since she had used it, other than with the cat.
“Tara. It’s Sophia.”
Tara swallowed, peered through the gap in the door. The wan porch light illuminated a woman with brilliant silver hair standing outside, her breath making ghosts against her lined skin and dark coat. The woman smiled reassuringly, the expression rumpling pleasantly around her gray eyes.
The smile chilled Tara, tightened her chest. She closed the door, inhaled a deep breath. Slowly, her fingers worked the chain free, then opened the door wide.
“I’m sorry to have come at such a late hour,” Sophia said. “It couldn’t be helped.”
Tara only nodded and stood aside as Sophia stepped into the dark room. Tara reached for the light switch. Though she was accustomed to seeing in darkness, she was certain her guest was not.
When she turned back, Sophia looked pointedly at her gun. “My dear, you won’t be needing that.” Sophia shrugged out of her coat. Tara knew this was all Sophia would say about the weapon.
Tara released the hammer on the gun. The heat from her fingers fogged the stainless steel. She placed the .38 on the kitchen counter, leaned against the sink with her arms crossed. “Why are you here?”
Sophia fixed her with her Athena-gray eyes, serious and piercing. “Your mother—”
Tara made a cutting gesture with her hand. “I don’t want to talk about my mother.”
Sophia did not look away. Tara knew Sophia had been the last person to see her mother alive. And Tara hated the jealousy and anger she felt, thinking about that.
Sophia continued. “Your mother would not have wanted this for you.”
Tara narrowed her eyes. “What would she not have wanted?” She sketched the cabin and the forest beyond with her hand. “I have peace. And I did
Attracted by the light and the voices, Tara’s cat drifted into the kitchen. He blinked his golden eyes at Sophia. She rubbed her fingers together, and Oscar trotted over to her, tail up. Much to Tara’s irritation, he began rubbing his face on Sophia’s black pants, leaving trails of charcoal fur. He was far too comfortable with her.
Unbidden, Sophia pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down. Reluctantly, Tara slid into a chair opposite her. Oscar leaped into her lap, purring like a diesel engine. Her silver hair hung in a tantalizing braid over her shoulder, and Oscar took a swipe at it. Sophia let him bat at it until his claws became tangled, and she gently worked them free. “She would not have wanted this isolation for you, especially after what happened.”
Tara bit back her anger, leveled her voice. “My mother is gone. I make my own choices.”
“Dear child.” The older woman reached for Tara’s hand. Sophia’s touch was surprisingly warm. Tara remembered those hands from when she was a child, warm as sunshine, brushing her hair. “You’ve lost much.”
Tara’s jaw tightened. “And you and your sisters would probably blame me for following. . . what was it, you called it? The destroyer’s path?”
Sophia shook her head, quivering her crescent-shaped earrings. “Not that. The warrior’s path. And we would never blame you.”
This old argument, again. “I became a profiler because I wanted to help. And I did.” Tara’s fingers traced a scar disappearing under her sleeve, and she shrugged. “Besides, that’s over now.” She didn’t mask her wry expression, disappointed in herself that she still sought Sophia’s approval. “I would have thought you would have approved of me leaving that life.”
life, yes. Not leaving life altogether.”
Tara rubbed her temple. “Sophia, what brings you here? Did you want to see me? Or do Delphi’s Daughters want something?” She pressed her mouth in a grim slash. She’d not spoken of Delphi’s Daughters in a long time, and the name of that secret society was foreign on her tongue. She would not be their tool.
Tara had been a tool for the Feds for too many years, summoned out of sleep to solve unspeakable crimes. Like a doll, she would be taken out of her box, wound up, and set upon a case. When she wound down, drained of all insight, they’d put her back in the box, only to come knocking again. She would not allow herself to be used that way, not again. Not by her government, and not by Delphi’s Daughters. Delphi’s Daughters had existed since the beginning of recorded time, and she was sure they could exist without her.
“Both,” Sophia said, her face honest and open. “Something has happened, and we need your help.”
“I’m all helped out. Sorry.”
Sophia pulled a manila file folder from her bag and set it on the table. Tara did not touch it. Sophia pulled a photograph out of the file and slid it across the table. Still, Tara refused to touch it. But she could not help looking. The picture was of a man in his fifties, dressed in a wrinkled lab coat, with his hands jammed in his pockets. His postu...