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Dark Oracle Mass Market Paperback – May 25, 2010
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About the Author
Alayna Williams has an MA in sociology-criminology (research interests: fear of crime and victimology) and a BA in criminology. She has worked in and around criminal justice since 1997. Although she does read Tarot cards, she’s never used them in criminal profiling or to locate lost scientists. She recently took up astronomy, but for the most part her primary role in studying constellations and dark matter is to follow her amateur astronomer-husband around central Ohio toting the telescope tripod and various lenses. Like the Pythia in Dark Oracle, she’s been known to belly dance. Unlike the Pythia she’d never consider herself a professional.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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 have solitude.”
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.”
“Leaving that 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 posture was of one who spent a great deal of time hunched over computers, and his stringy body suggested someone who often forgot to eat. His expression felt intense, even through the photographic ink. She could practically see the gears of his thoughts working behind that blue. . .
Tara shoved back from the table, as if the photo was too hot to touch. She didn’t want to fall into it, didn’t want to have to fight to claw her way back out. “Sophia. I can’t.”
The older woman did not remove the photo. “He’s very important, Tara. His name is Lowell Magnusson. As I understand it, he was involved in some very powerful technology. Dark matter and gravitational fields. There was an accident earlier this evening. His atom smasher blew up. He’s gone missing.”
Tara frowned. “Why is he important to you?”
Sophia laughed, a sound like bells. A sound that reminded Tara of her mother. “Strange, isn’t it? He’s a man, and he has no ability to see into any future beyond what his own imagination can create. . . One would think that would land him far outside of the purview of Delphi’s Daughters.”
“One would think that, yes.” Tara waited for an explanation. Delphi’s Daughters dedicated themselves to salvaging hidden things, to preserving the intellectual and physical lineages of esoteric knowledge since the time of the Oracle of Delphi. In all the time she’d observed her mother’s association with the secret society, she’d never seen men involved. It was always the women, whispering their arcane and alchemical lore from mother to daughter in unbroken chains spanning centuries. They trafficked in information and secrets, building empires of influence and knowledge, manipulating world events to their liking. And Tara, who had inherited her mother’s talents, remained a stubbornly broken link. She had refused to follow in her mother’s footsteps and join them.
Sophia’s laugh trickled away, and her eyes darkened to the color of winter storms. “Dr. Magnusson is very important to the balance of power, Tara. The powers he is working with are truly immense. . . gravity, time, the void. . . technology beyond imagination. And this technology would be very, very dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. The Pythia thinks—”
“I don’t care what the Pythia thinks,” Tara snapped. The Pythia was the strongest of modern oracles; surely she could see Tara wouldn’t help her.
“The Pythia thinks this technology could be misused and result in vast devastation and global war. He must be found.”
Tara leaned back in her chair, balancing on the back legs. She wanted no part of this. “Sophia, I. . .”
Sophia looked down at her hands. “I do not ask this lightly, Tara. We would have asked your mother for her assistance.”
Sophia continued, “But she is gone, and you are the only one left in her line who has her particular knack for finding people.”
Tara glanced down at the picture of the scientist. “Even if I wanted to, I’m so far out of practice, I would be of very little use.”
Sophia grinned at her. “No one ever falls out of practice in your art.”
Sophia slid the file across the table to her. “No one will force you, and I won’t come knocking again. All I ask is that you think about it.”
Tara could not refuse her that much. That much would, at least, get her out of Tara’s house.
• • • •
THE FILE FOLDER LAY UNDISTURBED ON THE KITCHEN TABLE for many hours after Sophia left. Tara moved around it, trying to pretend it didn’t exist. But she found herself orbiting it unconsciously, like a star around a black hole. Unable to return to sleep, she made herself a cup of hot chocolate and paced the kitchen, chewing on her thoughts.
It would take a great deal of desperation for the Pythia to send someone to her doorstep. Delphi’s Daughters and Lowell Magnusson obviously needed her help, but she resisted. Altruism warred with her desire to stay clear of the business of profiling again. Absently, she scratched at the scars crossing her belly. The last time she’d gone tracking in men’s minds, she’d nearly lost her life. It was not a risk she was willing to take again, even for an innocent like Dr. Magnusson.
Oscar leaped up onto the kitchen table and sat on Magnusson’s picture. He parked himself on his butt and splayed his toes to take a bath.
“Oscar.” She pulled the picture out from under his furry bottom. She glanced sidelong at the bathing beauty. “She whispered something in your ear, didn’t she? You’re in cahoots with her, aren’t you?”
Oscar nonchalantly ignored her, passionately cleaning his paws.
As far as Tara knew, Sophia’s particular talents lay in scrying, not in manipulating animals. That didn’t mean she couldn’t. No one but the Pythia ever knew the true extent of the power of Delphi’s Daughters.
Hesitating, she touched the picture. She held it at arm’s length, reluctant to allow the image to creep too far into her head. Lowell Magnusson stared back at her. He was wearing a truly awful navy blue tie patterned with cartoon planets, comets, and stars. It was the kind of tie one would receive as a gift for Father’s Day. No one would ever pick a tie like that out for himself.
Tentatively, she flipped open the folder.
The file didn’t belong to Delphi’s Daughters. As far as Tara knew, the secret society didn’t keep files. They were dreadfully old-fashioned that way. Rather, they seemed to gather information volunteered from unusual places. Judging by the form titles and letterhead, this file had come from the State Department. The Daughters of Delphi had money, stashed in accounts around the world. Old money. And money could buy a tremendous amount of information and influence.
Lowell Magnusson, age fifty-three, was a quantum physicist on contract for the Department of Defense. He was currently on sabbatical from teaching at Cornell. Tenured. Nice gig. Divorced, with a daughter, Cassie, age twenty-three. He’d been cited by the city of Albany twice for failure to mow his lawn, and his vanity license plates read quarky. He’d been raised in a small town in Ohio, which had named a reading room in the county library after him. Neither of his parents was still living, and he had no siblings.
His interest in astronomy had begun when he was twenty-one. As a graduate physics student working as a research assistant at Ohio State University, Magnusson had the good fortune to be present when his mentor, Dr. Jerry Ehman, received the famous Wow! radio signal. Ehman and Magnusson had been involved in the SETI project at the Big Ear Radio Telescope at Ohio State University in 1977, when the Big Ear caught a seventy-two-second burst of odd radio wave activity. The signal strongly suggested the existence of extraterrestrial life. It had never been replicated.
Tara flipped through a series of ID badge photos of the subject. Magnusson took a bad ID photo. He was squinting in half of the shots. His driver’s license also displayed the same blink reflex. She paused at a picture of him standing with a young woman who Tara assumed to be his daughter. They stood together in front of a string of lush green mountains, smiling under a bright blue sky. Magnusson was wearing a lurid yellow floral Hawaiian shirt that showed off a spectacular case of blistering sunburn. His daughter stood with her arms behind her back. She was her father’s daughter: dark hair, lanky frame, with her dad’s deep blue eyes. In the background stood the white dome of a large telescope facility. Hawaii, Tara guessed.
She thumbed through the file, reading paragraphs at random. Several papers Magnusson had written were included, and she read abstracts of articles dealing with the theoretical properties of dark matter and dark energy, describing neutralinos and super-dense particles, gravity wells and the bending of light around unseen objects in space. Magnusson was fascinated by the big cosmological questions of the universe: If only thirty percent of the universe was made of conventional matter and energy—things that could be touched and measured—where was the rest? How can we detect this so-called dark matter and dark energy, which is virtually undetectable?
Tara closed the folder on Magnusson’s questions, leaving out the picture of the physicist and his daughter. She was certain Sophia had included it to tug at her emotions.
Beside it, Oscar snored softly.
Tara pushed away from the table, padded to the bedroom. The gray light of dawn lightened the windows, casting a soft glow over the worn quilt covered in a frost of cat hair. She stood before the dresser, bare except for a closed jewelry box and a framed photograph of her mother and her when Tara was a child. Her mother, dressed in a paisley dress and straw hat, dark hair flowing over her shoulder, had flung her arms around Tara. Her smile was broad as a bow, unself-conscious. Tara was barefoot, wearing a yellow dress embroidered with ducks her mother made for her. Sunlight shone through tree leaves. Tara gently held a salamander in her dirty hands, joyously displaying the newly captured creature to the camera.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tara glimpsed her reflection in the photo frame’s glass. There was no mirror above the dresser or anywhere else in the cabin; Tara had removed all those when she’d moved in. The indistinct image illumined by the dim light of dawn showed the resemblance to her mother. Blue eyes, chocolate hair, skin pale as porcelain. But a truer looking glass or even turning on the light would reveal where the similarities ended: with the scars on her throat, the dark circles under her eyes—the haunted look that never completely left her visage. For a moment, she fingered a raised scar on her collarbone, then let her hand fall. She was not her mother’s daughter, after all. Her mother’s daughter would not be so reluctant to follow in her maternal footsteps.
Tara knelt to open the bottom drawer of the dresser, a drawer that had remained firmly closed for a very long time. She withdrew a small bundle wrapped in a red silk scarf. It had been her mother’s scarf. It still smelled a bit like her, jasmine and orange, fragrances that seemed out of place in this dull gray season. The bundle felt weighty in her hands as she carried it back to the kitchen. She spread the embroidered cloth open on the kitchen table, smoothing the fringe out.
A deck of Tarot cards and a small brown leather notebook lay on the table. The notebook had most of the pages torn out of it; the few remaining leaves were blank. The cards were well-worn with use, small nicks marring the art on the back of the cards: a tree, outlined in gold, branches reaching toward a night sky and roots reaching into the black earth. The black had faded with time. Tara had never really known the provenance of this particular deck. As much as her mother had tried to encourage her to find an affinity with another deck as a child, Tara had latched on to this particular one. It had belonged to her mother but, along with several other decks in her possession, wasn’t the one she used daily. Tara had suspected the cards were much older than her mother. She’d never seen another deck like it. The cards had spoken to her the first time she touched them, seeming to warm to her hands and buzz when she shuffled them like the wings of hummingbirds. She’d bonded to them right away.
But the cards spoke to her no more. Since the terrible incident that had scarred her and sent her into hiding, Tara had sealed them away and silenced them. Still, she’d never been able to destroy them.
Tara rested her chin in the palm of her hand, hair tricking over her wrist, reluctant to touch the deck. Her gaze brushed the picture of Lowell Magnusson and his daughter, smiling at her from glossy paper.
She feared opening the door to her intuitions again, to the synchronicities that would wake her from sound sleep. But Sophia had opened the door for her, and there was no silencing the clarion of the knowledge that someone needed her help.
Tara sighed, reached for the deck. Just one attempt at a reading and she’d put the cards away again. Then she’d tell Sophia she couldn’t help.
She centered herself, putting her feet flat on the floor and her hands palm up, open in her lap. She listened to her breath. Tara could also hear the whirr of the refrigerator, the cat’s snores, the splintering of ice outside, a crackle of a last ember in the fireplace. But she focused on her breath, and that sound drowned out the others. She emptied her thoughts and concentrated them on Lowell Magnusson. When she felt calm and still, she reached for the cards. The deck flexed in a familiar rhythm as she shuffled. Her hands still remembered.
The idea of the Tarot was centuries old. Predecessors to the modern deck of playing cards, they retained the archetypical imagery of the hero’s journey through two series: the Major and Minor Arcana.
The twenty-two images of the Major Arcana depicted ideas and archetypes that had existed throughout time: death, rebirth, life, justice. . . all abstract ideas embedded in the soul from the beginning of time. They could represent major events or pivotal people in one’s life. In the modern deck of playing cards, only one of these cards survived: the Joker. It was the analogue to the first card of the Major Arcana, the Fool, representing innocence. Somehow, it was ironic that innocence would always survive through the ages.
The fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana were divided into four suits: cups, wands, swords, and pentacles. Their modern analogues of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds lived on in every poker room, casino, game of solitaire, and senior citizens bridge group in the world. Each suit was associated with an element and an affinity: cups to water and feelings; wands to fire and action; swords to air and realms of thought; and pentacles to earth and prosperity. The Minor Arcana most often represented the attitudes and feelings of the questioner, where the court cards of each suit—the kings, queens, knights, and pages—could often represent people met along the questioner’s journey.
Together, these enduring images of the Tarot were intended to trigger the questioner’s imagination. They used symbols to bring hidden information into the conscious mind, by creating associations and emotions. Each individual’s reaction to a symbol would be unique, colored by experience, memory, and situation. These unique reactions yielded an association meaningful to the questioner. Jungian psychologists believed that the Tarot provided a pathway of connections, a means for the conscious mind to reach into the subconscious using symbols as a tool. But Tara knew Tarot could access much, much more.
“What do I need to know?” she thought aloud, working the deck. She shuffled until her mind felt blank and the cards seemed to stick together. She placed the deck to her right and began a Celtic Cross reading; although differences in placement varied among readers, it was the oldest and most common pattern of laying out the cards—the spread. A spread was a way of asking a question, a framework for a story to develop. The Celtic Cross was a broad reading, touching on past, present, future, and the querent’s place in the environment. This version had been her mother’s favorite, and one of the first spreads Tara had learned.
She drew the first card and laid it faceup on the center of the scarf. This card represented the present situation: the Four of Swords. A knight lay in effigy in a church. Light streamed through stained-glass windows, illuminating four swords hanging over his head, and a wreath of white roses lay on the effigy’s hands. Tara’s mouth twisted. It signified enforced solitude, respite to heal. . . but could also suggest fear of facing the world.
She drew the second card, laid it crosswise across the first. This represented her immediate obstacle or support. The High Priestess stared back at her with a direct, serious expression. The Priestess held a sheaf of paper and was crowned with a silver moon headdress, representing spiritual mystery. Tara’s attention drifted to the file folder, and she thought of Sophia’s silver moon earrings. Sophia both opposed Tara’s solitude and supported her leaving it. Beyond Sophia, Tara thought of the Pythia, the Priestess of her own secret order.
She drew another card and laid it vertically above the others, directly below Magnusson’s picture. This card crowned the first two and represented the highest destiny that could be hoped for in the situation. The card depicted the Magician, the inventor, the alchemist. . . the source of vital creativity. A man in a violet cloak stood holding a wand to the sky, with symbols of the four elements spread on a table before him: a sword, a pentacle, a wand, and a chalice. . . air, earth, fire, and water, made one. Above the Magician’s head was the figure-eight shaped lemniscate, the sign of infinity, glowing golden against a background of lilies. Tara’s gaze flickered up to the scientist’s photo.
Tara steepled her hands before her. The fact the Magician was in the destiny position suggested Magnusson could be found. The two last cards laid out before her worried her. Both were Major Arcana, large archetypes cycling through life. This question was important, of great weight, heavy as lead.
She drew the fourth card and placed it below the first three to symbolize the distant past influencing the situation. The Two of Swords. The card depicted a blindfolded woman sitting on a beach, balancing two swords in crossed arms, one on each shoulder. The ocean roared behind her. Tara tipped her head, absorbing the card. The card could denote the deliberate closing of one’s eyes to the truth of the ocean, a closed heart, or unwillingness to choose sides. A precarious situation, to be sure. Tara couldn’t tell if this referred to Magnusson’s experience, or to her own. It seemed her experiences and feelings were bleeding over into the reading.
She placed the next card to the right of the Priestess to represent the recent past. The Eight of Pentacles was reversed, its image upside down from Tara’s point of view. A man worked at a bench, meticulously tooling disks of pentacles, absorbed in his work. In the upright position, this would have meant pride in one’s work. Reversed, it suggested unsatisfying work, professional envy, jealousy, or covetousness.
This was the second eight she’d drawn. Her thoughts drifted back to the lemniscate, the infinity sign gracing the Magician’s head. She was certain these last two cards referred to Magnusson’s situation.
She drew a sixth card, placed it to the left of the other cards. This card would describe the near future and near influences. The Knight of Pentacles brooded over a disk engraved with a star cradled gently in his hands. He was dark haired, sitting astride a black horse. A practical man. A man of action, deeply rooted in the physical world. Tara mentally filed this image away for later. She did not know this person, and he did not seem like an aspect of her own personality. Perhaps he would figure into the investigation.
She placed the seventh card on the lowest right-hand corner of the table. This represented Tara, as the questioner. The Queen of Swords, the snow queen. The card showed a crowned woman sitting on a throne before a gray sky. Wind and snow tangled in her hair and cloak, and she held a silver sword upright. She held the sword in her right hand, but held her left hand as if the sword of her intellect had cut her. She looked at a horizon Tara couldn’t see, and her expression was one of sorrow. The traditional meaning: sadness, sterility, mourning. After Sophia’s visit, it wasn’t hard for Tara to imagine herself in that context.
Enough about her. Tara quickly drew the next card from the deck. The eighth card represented the environment. She drew the Tower, the card of disaster, of revolution. It depicted a tower, struck by lightning, from which two people fell to the ground. A powerful image, and a powerful event of upheaval, betrayal, chaos. Sophia had said there had been an explosion in which the scientist had disappeared. Tara looked carefully at the figures falling from the tower, wondering if they would survive.
She placed the ninth card above the Star. This represented inner emotions, hidden things. The Star. A maiden bathed in a starlit pond, gazing up at a starry sky. She poured water from two cups, pouring energy back into the universe. This was a softer release of power than the Tower, a subtle transmutation. It represented hope, truth.
Tara pulled the last card and put it on the table above the Star, finishing the vertical column. This card, the Six of Swords, represented the final result. A ferryman rowed a boat carrying six swords over water to a green, distant shore. It was a card of movement, of travel, but of carrying a precious burden.
Tara leaned back in her chair. The reading was mixed. She felt sure some of the cards called to her personally; others reflected the larger situation of the missing man. The reading was heavy on swords, which symbolized the element of air but, of the Minor Arcana suits, involved the most conflict. A large number of Major Arcana cards suggested the situation involved significant forces in play.
Oscar rolled over dramatically, his tail twitching the deck she’d laid to the side. She reached over to rub his speckled belly with one hand as she jotted down the spread and her impressions in the little notebook. She wrote down the date, the question she’d asked, and the cards she’d drawn, in order. Below each card, she jotted her thoughts of how they interacted with the situation, what details stood out, which associations she made in her mind. She left plenty of blank space, especially for those cards she didn’t understand fully now. Perhaps their meaning would become clear in the future.
She knew Dr. Magnusson had little time. Most missing persons had to be found within the first hours or days of their disappearances, or risk being lost forever. In her head, a mental clock was set, ticking softly. Sophia had said he’d just disappeared. Perhaps there was still time. She grimaced inwardly. She hated the idea of getting involved, but the photo pulled at the rusty wires of her heartstrings. If that young woman was left without parents, as Tara had been. . . Tara didn’t think she would be able to set aside the guilt. The cards had come alive to her, at least in part. She knew she could help.
Her gaze lingered on the last card, the journey card. That card, at least, was very clear to her rusty senses. She sighed and reached for the phone to ask for Sophia to reserve her a plane ticket and arrange for someone to feed the cat.
© 2010 Laura Mailloux
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Profiler Tara Gilian was used to hunt serial killers, but one of them turned on her and the experience left her scarred physically as well as mentally.
When her former allies, the Oracles of Delphi call her for help, Tara wants to refuse. She's done with this scene. Her cards tell her to help them though and it's hard to refuse fate.
While I was reading DARK ORACLE a suspicion sneaked up on me. Writers rarely sell their first novel and they often have several novels they are shopping around, trying to get a publisher. I believe that DARK ORACLE is the older and Embers the more recent novel. That's the most logical explanation for the differing skill sets shown by the author. 'Cause there is a difference - not only in style and tone - but in the level of expertise.
Let's start with the concept. In theory a criminal profiler who solves her cases with the help of tarot, doesn't sound bad. Especially, when this profiler abandoned the secret society of oracles where her deceased mother was a prominent member. The reality is mind bogglingly dull. When Tara lays her cards, she describes them in great detail. Why would she do that? She knows these cards (and what's on them) better than the back of her hand! At first I thought they were magical and that the pictures would change slightly to adapt to the situation, but it turns out the cards are mundane. Some of the sets hold more than eight cards and when Tara finishes with the last one I had already forgotten what had come before. Her results are vague and can't compare with the more flashy methods of the other oracles. Maybe someone, who is familiar with tarot, will appreciate this part of the story more than I. Still, there must be a way to make these scenes interesting.
The male dominated military against female dominated magical society fighting for possession of a new, extremely dangerous technology (military wants to use it for nefarious purposes, oracles want to prevent its use) plot is stereotypical and cheesy. Williams struggles bravely against the cheesefest, but it breaks through time and time again.
While the characters have the potential to ground the story in reality, they often add to the melodrama. I liked Tara's background, the way she was scarred emotionally and physically and how she tried to deal with it (not always successfully). However, others portray her as a warrior (the other oracles, her mother, her boyfriend), but there is nothing in her mental make up to convince me of it. Neither her power nor her personality seem suited to this task. That doesn't mean she can't hold her own if she needs to, but there's a vulnerability, a softness, a passivity to Tara that don't mesh with my understanding of the term "warrior". I also didn't like the relationship with her sorta-boyfriend. It develops in leaps and bounds, backtracks again and there's much agonizing on Tara's part. No thanks.
The best thing about this novel is a minor character. Wily old Martin knows enough about heart attacks to outfox the enemy and enough about sensual massages to embarrass his protégé. There is something about him that feels real and authentic, that others lacked.
In the end I was happy I discovered Laura Bickle first. If it had been the other way round I'm not sure I would have tried the superior Embers and I would have missed out on a very enjoyable novel.
I don't think this author Laura Bickle/Alayna Williams' writing style jives with me. When reviewing her books, my opinion always seems to be in the minority. I'm never impressed with her books and usually walk away from it feeling disappointed and bored. Therefore, this author and her pseudonym will be stricken from my reading list.
Tara is the only woman to leave Delphi's Daughters. Skilled in the art of cartomancy (using tarot cards to read the future), she used to work for the government as a profiler. After she got chewed up and spit out by a bad case, she left the Feds and the Daughters behind, wanting solitude and to live her own life. But when a scientist working on a deadly project disappears, Tara gets dragged back into the worlds she left.
Clues to Tara's past are sprinkled throughout the book, and build her character. She's not the usual up-in-your-face, brash, kick-butt type of urban fantasy heroine. Tara is cautious. Well, more cautious than most, but she does charge headfirst into some situations. I liked Tara's cautiousness and hesitance to get involved. The clues of her past hint at something dark and horrible, so I found it believable that it took her time to get over that. She goes from almost having a claustrophobia-induced panic attack at a crime scene to charging into danger to save her man.
DARK ORACLE doesn't read like your typical urban fantasy. It has more of a mystery or detective story feel. The everyday crime story combined with some hints of magic. I liked that the paranormal world in this series isn't always upfront. You know it's there, and that the oracles have some influence over the events of the world, but there's still the possibility that choice and free will can change the forecasted future. There's also quite a bit of focus on science, which isn't usually something you find in urban fantasy.
The writing in DARK ORACLE does get bogged down at times by the extensive descriptions of tarot reading. I both liked and disliked the use of tarot cards. I thought it was a neat way to foreshadow, but I could have done without the extended descriptions of each card and its significance. I'll admit, I ended up skimming some of those passages. But if tarot reading is something you have an interest in, you'll probably find those parts more interesting than I did.
Aside from Tara, the rest of the characters are pretty well done. The author makes an effort to give even the animals personality. Maggie the dog and Oscar the cat were actually some of my favorite characters, along with Cassie, the daughter of the missing scientist. The one rub for me was Harry, Tara's love interest. I would have liked to see more development of their relationship.
The main story of this novel concludes at the end of DARK ORACLE, which is nice. No frustrating cliffhanger, but there is room for more, and I'll be reading the sequel, ROGUE ORACLE, to see what happens to Tara, Harry, and Cassie. And the animals!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
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