“Bria Stevens is heralded as an excellent Necromancer and problem solver, but a lone wolf as far as the trade goes,” Amber said, delivering the information like she was reading it straight from a report. She might as well have been. The blood oath she’d taken had given her exceptional information recall. “She never gets too close to anyone. She’s friendly with the power players in the trade, and involved in all the right groups, but she maintains a respectable distance from the others that keeps her clear of in-fighting. She is taken seriously without being seen as a threat. In short, she has positioned herself perfectly. That takes great intelligence.”
Amber paused so he could soak in that information. She was setting the stage, and that stage seemed to be filled with professionals. He’d been shortsighted in sending Flara—a decision that might’ve bitten him in the ass.
“Noted,” he said. “Continue.”
“My team is still compiling data, but so far, the Necromancer is elusive. She comes and goes seemingly at random. She has been seen entering the non-magical zone, though she has no clearance to do so, and she hangs out in the dual-magical zone occasionally. My guess is that she works at being unpredictable. She attempts to mask her movements in chaos, and she does an incredible job. If she’d played her cards like most Necromancers, she would’ve been snatched up by a Demigod and pulled into his or her inner circle.
“That said, she hasn’t trained to compete with someone of my caliber. She moves around under the radar just fine, but doesn’t dispose of the stolen cars as well as she should. She has covered her face to avoid facial recognition at moments when she shouldn’t have, and vice versa. In short, she has been sloppy in places. Either that is because she is not trying as hard as she should be, or she is simply missing the mark on excellence.”
“Do you think she was involved in this?”
“I believe so. Her timeline and appearances were almost impeccable during the period in question. Almost. But a few slips and a trip to the outpatient emergency room gives me reason to suspect she had a direct hand in the disappearance of your spirit workers.”
Valens rubbed his thumb across the leather of the chair arm. Finally a lead. “I’ll look for your report on the best way to twist information out of her.”
To his surprise, Amber shook her head. “I believe she was involved, but I’m hesitant to bring her in just yet. That would set off some large alarm bells. I have a growing suspicion…” She shifted her weight, a small movement that spoke volumes. She was not a woman given to uncertainty. “Last night, the Necromancer was seen with a class two Ghost Whisperer. Soon after leaving the bar, the Necromancer separated from the Ghost Whisperer to walk a drunk man home. I believe the man was a distraction. As was the convoluted path she took. I checked out this Ghost Whisperer. On paper, there was nothing to give me pause, but…” She shifted again and a small line formed between her brows.
Valens stilled his thumb. This was unusual. Amber looked almost troubled.
“Nearly three months ago she was brought in for a magical reassessment,” Amber said. “She is twenty-five years old, with no job offer or pending application of any kind to prompt the reassessment.”
“Did they find anything abnormal?”
“No. All was as expected. The new report was in line with the old one.” She paused.
His impatience got the better of him. “Then what is the problem?”
“Something…seemed off. The dots weren’t all connecting for me. I followed up with the staff. One of them remembered the Ghost Whisperer was tested in the surveillance room, a room usually reserved for high-powered magical workers. Another recalled that she was also seen by a high-level Authenticator, but he didn’t remember why.”
Valens raised his eyebrows and a thread of intrigue filtered into his awareness.
“When shown the report, the staff assumed they’d made a mistake.” There was that shift again. “The new assessment happened right around the time I brought in Dunstin…”
Dunstin was a class-five earth Elemental who’d run from his home territory in France. The man had been extremely unhinged and dangerous, but exceptionally talented. Valens had hoped to reprogram him and force him into his Elite, where he could keep the magical worker on a very tight leash.
Unfortunately, someone had tipped off Elise, the Demigod of France. Valens had been left with little choice but to give the treasure back, lest he start an altercation that would severely tax his reserves at an inopportune time. The magical person wasn’t worth a war.
Regardless, the situation had been messy and, as Amber was clearly hinting, an excellent distraction.
He leaned forward in his seat, his heart quickening.
Amber nodded. “The timing seems like too great a coincidence.”
“What did the mountebank who did the assessment have to say?” he asked.
“He disappeared, along with his nurse. He quit with no explanation as to why, and didn’t leave a forwarding address. He sold his house, but other than that, I can find absolutely no paper trail. Neither can I find any trace of tampering in the files. It is like he and the nurse vanished.”
Valens entwined his fingers, his pulse racing now. This was how he felt when in pursuit of big game. Adrenaline and excitement and a small but healthy dose of fear. The best hunts were in pursuit of something—or someone—as cunning as he. The danger got the blood pumping.
“Go on,” Valens said.
“The Authenticator in question has relocated. He got a better job offer…in Sydney.”
The breath gushed out of Valens. Dara. The bane of his existence.
If they some day added a class six to the power scale, Dara would rank in that small group. Her mother was a mortal Demigod of Zeus’s line, torn down in defense of her territory, and her father was a world-renowned Fire Elemental, who’d gone down right at her side. Dara had survived. Later, through a connection with a man of Hades’s line, she was able to use his spirit power to obtain immortality. The man had disappeared shortly thereafter.
She was a constant thorn in Valens’s side, opposing his proposed legislation at every Magical Summit. The Fire Elemental even galvanized weaker leaders to stand with her. His efforts to foster and encourage non-magical dependency were thwarted at every turn, even simple motions about legalizing certain types of trade with the Chesters. The changes he wished to implement would help all magical people, something she was not interested in hearing. It was madness. He knew that if he needed to go in and extract the Authenticator, she would do everything in her power to block him.
Whoever had sent the Authenticator there would’ve known this.
“Let me guess, he has no listed phone number,” he said.
“Correct. I could not find a way to get a hold of him.”
Valens steepled his fingers. “If Dara were coming after me, she wouldn’t start by cutting down two of my mid-level employees,” he murmured to himself.
“I do not believe she had any part in this.” Her shrug was small. “On paper, everything seems in order. But…”
“No.” He held up his hand. This was why Amber was the only striking beauty he refused to lay his hands on, and why he gave her the loosest leash of any member of his Elite. Many of his employees had genius-level intelligence, but she had something extra. Her extremely potent intuition was rarely wrong. “This is wrapped up a little too tightly, you’re right. It’s strange that a poor class two living in the dual-society zone would be brought in for a reassessment without any reason. Even if the report of the assessment is correct, the mountebank and the nurse disappearing without a trace is relevant. An Authenticator leaving at the same time is also relevant.” He tapped his fingers against his lips. “Very few would’ve delved as deeply as you have.”
“Yes, sir. In addition, there is no video footage of the Ghost Whisperer’s assessment. Given that it was in the surveillance room, of course, something not noted on the report.” She straightened her suit top. “I’m afraid I have more questions than answers for you, sir.”
Valens smiled. It was rare for Amber to admit defeat.
His smile wilted a moment later. The mastermind of this situation was a careful player, and then some. The Necromancer was good, but she clearly worked for someone excellent.
“I agree with your assessment that we should wait before bringing in the Necromancer,” he said. “Shift your efforts. Get more information on the Ghost Whisperer. Nothing else has happened in the last two months to suggest we have a time frame in which to catch the perpetrators. Let’s stalk our prey for the moment.”
“That’s not all, sir,” she said.
He stilled. How much more could there possibly be?
“When she came in for her assessment, she was with a sick fifteen-year-old shifter who got assessed for what the shifters call Moonmoth disease. It’s an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the magic—”
“Not long after, an ‘unnamed’ benefactor sponsored the boy’s treatment.” To Valens’s office, nothing was truly anonymous. Everything left a paper trail. “The kid made a dramatic and eyebrow-raising recovery. He was a strong class four at the time of the surgery, but he’s just about to get his big boost of magic.”
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