Dante stared at his laptop, ignoring the milling patrons in the Austin coffee shop and his salad. He read over the notes from his investigation and the meager details he’d been able to collect. Almost three months of talking to street kids and cops in cities and towns all over the Midwest, and he had just this side of nothing to show for it.
“More, um, coffee?” the waitress asked.
Dante glanced. She was maybe in her early twenties, but the way she chewed her lip as she looked at him made her appear even younger. He was used to mortals staring at him like that and normally he enjoyed the attention, but today his mind was elsewhere. It had been for the last couple of months. He really needed to keep up his glamour better.
He gave her a smile, which made her breath catch. “Actually,” he said, quickly reading her name tag, “Sarah, I’m having tea.”
She swallowed. “Oh, I’m sorry. Would you like—?”
“I’m fine, but thank you very much.”
She nodded. “Okay, but if you need anything, just let me know.”
“I certainly will.”
She stopped biting her lip, but didn’t move. “You know, I, um, my shift ends—”
When his phone rang, Dante gave Sarah an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, but I need to take this.”
She blinked, and her smile faltered. “Oh, right, I’m sorry.” She turned and walked away, shaking her head and muttering to herself.
Dante answered his phone. “Please tell me you have something new.”
“I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” Faolan asked.
Dante rubbed his temples and muttered something impolite.
“Want to visit Kansas?”
He straightened. “What do you have?”
“Well, it turns out the information you’ve gathered was enough to extrapolate a rough timeline.”
“Someday you’ll stop being surprised by my magnificence.”
“Not in this lifetime,” Dante said, his first genuine smile in weeks on his lips. “Tell me.”
“It looks like things started small,” Faolan said. “Then about nine months ago, disappearances skyrocketed. Coincidently, that’s also when we have our first report of homeless kids wielding magic.”
“And you wouldn’t be talking about visiting the Sunflower State if you hadn’t found something more.”
“There were two major events within a week of the first noticeable increase in disappearances. The first was the oíche’s attempted insurrection …”
“I think it’s safe to say that was unrelated,” Dante said. “What’s the other?”
“A car accident in Topeka, Kansas,” Faolan said. “A fifteen-year-old girl and her parents were T-boned by a drunk driver early on a Sunday afternoon. Their car caught fire. Rescue units couldn’t get there in time to save the parents.”
Dante leaned forward. “And the daughter?”
“Was found in the backseat, after the fire was out,” Faolan said. “Something like ten minutes later.”
“Not even a singed hair.”
Dante let out a low whistle.
“Yeah, and it gets better—well, worse,” Faolan said.
“The fire department didn’t put the fire out,” Faolan said. “The car was too far gone when they arrived. Per procedure, the risk of explosion kept them back. Then reports say they heard a girl scream. A powerful wind came out of nowhere, strong enough to roll the car from its roof back onto its wheels. When it was righted, the fires just went out. First responders found the girl in a ball in the backseat, muttering to herself. The police described her as mentally unstable.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Dante said. “Where is she now?”
“Well, she didn’t have any other family, so she went into the system.”
Dante winced and muttered an oath. “I can guess what happened next.”
“Yep, bounced from home to home,” Faolan said. “She ran away a few times, but kept getting picked up by the local police. The last report of her running was three weeks after being assigned to a new foster home. She vanished, along with three other kids.” Faolan paused. “This particular foster home has had twenty-seven foster kids reported as runaways.”
“So is it just a bad place?” Dante asked. “Or is something else going on?”
“I hear Kansas is lovely in the summer,” Faolan said.
“Do I have a flight?”
“Sorry, cutbacks. You’re walking,” Faolan said.
Dante chuckled as he saw Padraig enter the shop, dressed in fashionable jeans and a fitted white button-down shirt. When he smoothed his dark red hair and scanned the room, every woman turned and stared.
“I think my guide is here. I’ll call you when I land.”
“I’ll be here,” Faolan said.
Dante hung up as Padraig made his way to the booth.
“Magis—” He winced. “Sorry—”
Dante waved it off. “Lots of that going around. Forget it.” He shut down his laptop and tucked it away in his briefcase.
Then he caught a glimpse of Sarah looking at him and trying to pretend she wasn’t. Dante put a twenty on the table to cover the tea and salad, then pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. With a few twists, he folded it into a rose. He set the rose on the twenty, grabbed his briefcase, and stood up.
“You’re the guide,” he said to Padraig. “Lead the way.”
Even after all the times Dante had walked the Far Trails, their incongruent geography never ceased to amaze him. They’d stepped onto the trails through a large but parched-looking pecan tree in Zilker Park. Then Dante stood in a surreal forest of impossibly tall trees. The ground had no scrub growth, which gave it the appearance of a manicured orchard. Everywhere he looked, there was a clear path.
Padraig led him a dozen paces down a trail and opened the way back. They stepped out less than half a mile from the Country Club Plaza in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri.
“There’s a car over there,” Padraig said, handing Dante a set of keys. “I’ll go back and take care of the one in Austin.”
“This is why I never cease to be amazed by Faolan’s magnificence,” Dante said, accepting the keys.
Padraig grinned, then turned and stepped back into the trails.
Dante had just lifted the keys to find the car when a tall and slender woman walked toward him. Her dark green pencil skirt was slit high up one side, flashing the pale skin of her thigh as she walked. Her dark auburn hair was like living fire, and the perfection of her porcelain skin was only interrupted by a few freckles on the apples of her cheeks.
A nostalgic smile found its way across Dante’s face.
The woman returned the grin. She arched an eyebrow and tucked her hair behind her pointed ear.
“It’s been a long time, Brigid,” Dante said. When she offered her hand, he kissed it. “Or do you prefer, Magister?”
“There’s a mortal saying,” Brigid said, her words silken and husky. “Call me anything you like, just be sure to call me.”
Dante laughed. “How did you ever play the mortal nun?”
“You know full well I was canonized,” Brigid said, a teasing note in her voice.
“You’re not exactly what most would imagine when they hear the word saint.”
“And at the time, my piety was sincere.” Her green eyes sparkled. “But I’ve become worldlier since then.”
“Haven’t we all,” Dante said. “Now, tell me what you’re doing here. Not just happening by, I assume.”
“Mavourneen,” she said. “You don’t think I’d let you investigate in my region without offering to help, do you?”
“So you’re joining me, then,” Dante said.
“Just like old times.”
Dante used the key fob to find the car. His good mood vanished when he saw a black Suburban flash its lights. He stared at the black monstrosity for a long moment before letting out a long sigh and resigning himself to his fate. Brigid shrugged, barely hiding a chuckle. He set his briefcase behind the driver’s seat and they both climbed in. When the engine turned over, the touchscreen GPS was already preprogrammed with the home address of the girl’s last foster parents. He had barely pulled out of the parking spot when his phone rang and Faolan’s face appeared on the screen.
Dante pressed the send button. “Are you kidding me?” he asked.
“What?” Faolan’s gleeful voice came through the Bluetooth system. “If you want to play like you’re a federal agent bigwig, you have to drive a big black SUV.”
Dante shot a glance at Brigid. “This was your idea, wasn’t it?”
She gave him an innocent look, then drew from the glove box a set of authentic-looking FBI credentials.
“I miss my Mustang,” Dante muttered as he merged into traffic.
“I’ll get it detailed for you,” Faolan said through a laugh.
“Wax, not polish,” Dante said.
“But of course, sahib,” Faolan said, the words dripping with sarcasm.
“In the meantime,” Dante said. “We need some details on the girl.”
“I see what you did there, very witty,” Faolan said. There was the sound of computer keys clicking. “Unfortunately, there’s not much else to say. The social services files say the girl’s name is Jane Essex. Her parents were George and Katherine. After the accident, Jane was put under observation and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Must’ve been a genius doctor to figure that one out,” Brigid said.
“They tried sending Jane back to school with her first foster family.” There was a pause. “It, um, didn’t go well.”
Dante and Brigid exchanged a glance. “That’s rather vague,” Dante said.
“The file has some witness reports, but it also dismisses them as nonsense. They say Jane was being bullied. Some girls pushed her against the wall and she freaked out—the report’s words, not mine. She went into a ball and screamed something.”
“What’s nonsense about that?” Brigid asked.
“The part where every window within a hundred-foot radius blew out,” Faolan said.
“Okay, that sounds bad,” Dante said.
“What do you know about the most recent foster family?” Brigid asked. “The one with all the runaways.”
Dante gave her a questioning look.
“He filled me in while you were on your way here,” she said.
“That would be Richard and Mary Fredricks,” Faolan said. “They’ve been investigated repeatedly, but nothing was ever found to pull their foster status.”
“Nothing?” Dante asked. “Really?”
“Gee, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” Brigid said.
“According to the reports, everything was done aboveboard,” Faolan said. “Surprise visits, inspections, interviews with the kids still there. Nothing.”
“Well, I’m sure there was nothing to find then,” Brigid said, words dripping sarcasm.
“Yeah, but we’ll pay them a visit anyway.” Dante pressed down on the gas.