Spirelli Paranormal Investigations - Kate Baray - ebook
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A human investigator in a magical world...what could possibly go wrong?Jack Spirelli, paranormal investigator, public debunker of supernatural frauds, and private fixer for the magic-using community has opened his doors.Between exposing paranormal hoaxes and handling cases of a more magical nature, Jack's juggling more business than he can handle. It's past time to hire an assistant, another investigator, and some additional muscle - but maybe the dragon who just walked in and applied will do for now.This volume contains three episodes, each of which is a complete stand-alone story.

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Spirelli Paranormal Investigations

Episodes 1-3

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KATE BARAY

Copyright © 2015 Catherine G. Cobb

All rights reserved.

Cover by Viola Estrella

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

DEDICATION

Spirelli Paranormal Investigations | Episode 1

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

EPILOGUE

Spirelli Paranormal Investigations | Episode 2

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

EPILOGUE

Spirelli Paranormal Investigations | Episode 3

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

EPILOGUE

Excerpt | Spirelli Paranormal Investigations | Episode 4

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Also by Kate Baray

DEDICATION

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For Dad

Spirelli Paranormal Investigations

Episode 1

CHAPTER ONE

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Jack fiddled with the inner workings of his ancient cash register. He needed a newer machine to better track sales, because—surprisingly—The Junk Shop actually had a few sales to track. Who knew boxes of garage sale rejects would be so popular? The store hours were erratic, and the stock ranged from recycled trash to bizarre trinkets, yet the store still received stellar online consumer reviews. It didn’t have a website. So how did the yuppies, hipsters—whoever the hell was writing the reviews—find it?

“You know, that car outside looks like it needs a little work. I might know a guy, if you’re interested.”

Five foot and a lot, the woman attached to the voice would be hard to miss, with her fiery red hair and overly bright green eyes. Jack left his barstool perch behind the counter and had a long look at her. He’d missed her entering the store, and her voice had startled him. Quite a task, considering he had a tight ward on the store. And he was hardly an unobservant guy.

“How can I help you?” Jack worked to produce a convincingly relaxed tone.

Face expressionless, the redhead said, “I’m here to apply for the position.”

“We’re not hiring at the moment.” When she didn’t reply and she also didn’t leave, he added, “Look around. We’re a small shop, but maybe something will catch your eye.”

Sure, The Junk Shop was a retail location, but it had begun primarily as a front for Jack’s work with the magic-using community. A discreet physical location was a bonus when meeting with clients who wanted to stay under the radar. He looked around the small store. For a front, it was becoming increasingly and uncomfortably popular.

She looked around. “Uh-huh. I’m not here for . . .  bric-a-brac. I’m sure you’ve got a position open. My sources are excellent.”

Jack hadn’t posted the position. Where would he? He could just imagine how that ad would read. Wanted: Paranormal investigator’s assistant. Complete discretion and some ass-kicking required. Part-time help in The Junk Shop mandatory. A high tolerance for the unexplainable preferred. No.

And Jack had only mentioned to a select few that he was looking to hire: his highest-ranking Inter-Pack Policing Cooperative contact, Harrington; the Texas Pack leader, John Braxton; and IPPC’s temporary chief of security for the Prague library, Ewan Campbell.

“Who’s your reference?”

“My stealth entry into the store wasn’t reference enough?” She gave him a toothy smile.

That smile made him incredibly uncomfortable. Green eyes, creepy feeling—alarm bells were ringing. Fuck. His stealthy, green-eyed Amazon was a dragon. He’d bet cash on it. He stared back without answering.

She shrugged. “Lachlan McClellan, but that might not be entirely to my benefit when you check my references.”

“Head of the McClellan clan?”

The guy led a powerful clan of dragons, but he was also a dick with a crap sense of humor. And Jack didn’t see him being particularly enlightened about female employees. Although he was surprised Ewan had mentioned Jack’s staffing needs to his clan leader.

She hesitated before responding. “We’re from the same clan.”

Oh, fuck—dragon. He knew it. “You want the job?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I’m here, having this conversation with you.”

Her non-answers were annoying as hell. More importantly, he didn’t see them becoming less annoying with time and proximity.

“Pass.” Jack turned back to the register.

“Wait. Yes, I would like the job.” She continued to speak to his back. “Please. I would very much like this job.”

Slowly Jack turned around. “Then tell me why I should hire you? Besides your stealth entry into a warded store. That only tells me you’re a thief.”

A brief flicker of fiery green flashed in her eyes, but quickly dimmed. “I’m unemployed and unable to return to my previous employer, which makes me highly motivated to be successful here. Also, I understand you’re looking for muscle. My combat skills are excellent.” She blinked. “I can demonstrate.”

She gave him another smile with just a shade too many teeth.

“No thanks. A dragon kicking my very human ass isn’t much of a demonstration. Besides, I’d hate for us to break my bric-a-brac.” Jack sat down behind the counter and picked up a pen. Having a dragon would be a huge tactical advantage in most fights, regardless of technical competence.

“Talk to Lachlan. Whatever else he might say, he’ll tell you I’m honest and hardworking.” She placed a slight emphasis on “honest.” She swallowed, the first sign of nervousness she’d displayed since walking into his store. “Please.”

Apparently he’d hit a nerve when he’d compared her to a thief. A highly motivated, well-connected dragon employee—he’d be an idiot to walk away just because she wasn’t exactly right. Especially since he didn’t know what “exactly right” was. What type of person wouldn’t drive him nuts with continuous contact? The shelf life of most of his relationships, regardless of the type, was pretty short.

“What’s your name?”

“Marin.” She didn’t offer her hand.

Jack knew the right answer, yet still he hesitated. Damn. He had a job coming up day after tomorrow that could use some dragon muscle.

“All right, Marin. Come back tomorrow at ten. If your reference comes through, we’ll discuss employment terms.” He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t pay well.”

She ducked her chin once in acknowledgment and headed out the door. This time, Jack saw her pass through the ward, and a shower of green sparks, visible only to him, fell in her wake. He felt a corresponding pinch from the ring he wore on his right hand. No way he’d missed the ward triggering when she’d first entered the store. If this whole thing worked out and she joined Spirelli Paranormal Investigations, that was one of his first questions.

Jack picked up his cell and scrolled through his contacts, looking for Ewan’s number. Jack was pretty sure Ewan would put him in touch with Lachlan. After a quick mental calculation, adding seven hours to account for Prague time, Jack decided it wasn’t too late and dialed Ewan’s number.

Ewan answered on the first ring. “Jack. What’s up?”

“Hey, Ewan. Any chance you could put me in touch with Lachlan? I had someone come by the shop asking about that assistant’s job. Remember, I told you I was looking for someone? Lachlan came up as a reference.”

“Sure.” Background noise filtered in. “Heads up—you’re on speaker.”

“Thanks, man. You might actually know her; she’s from your clan. A tall redhead named Marin?”

The background noise abruptly disappeared. Ewan must have turned the speaker function off and picked up his phone. “Yeah.” The word came out so short, it almost sounded like a grunt.

Something about Marin had drastically changed the tone of their conversation. Jack contemplated for a split second whether to ask. He closed his eyes. Had he lost his mind?

After a few seconds of silence, Ewan said, “Marin is my daughter.”

Jack sat on his favorite barstool, the one positioned in front of the shop’s register. Careful to make his tone as neutral as possible, he said, “I didn’t know that.”

“Clearly.”

Jack didn’t get it. Ewan seemed pissed, but the guy hadn’t said a word about not hiring his kid. Since Jack wasn’t eager to get singed or mutilated due to an unfortunate miscommunication, clarification was the wisest course. “So, are you telling me you don’t want me to hire her?”

“Not at all.”

Jesus. Really? Jack rolled his shoulders. “Are you telling me you want me to hire her?”

“What did you want to know?” Ewan’s voice had lost some of its edge.

“Uh, okay.” Jack figured Ewan had enough patience for about two questions, so he erred on the side of caution and limited himself to one. “Would you recommend Marin for the job?”

“Yes. We done?”

Good enough.

“Yeah. Thanks again.” As he pocketed his phone, he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye.

Staring at the now empty shop floor, he said, “I know you’re there, little guy. You better be glad I know what rat poison does.” He couldn’t commit to chemical warfare—even in the pursuit of pest control. It was a weird quirk. Whatever. People who used rat poison must not know what that shit did to the insides of an animal. He snorted. Or they just didn’t like living with rats. “Fuzzball, you’re damn lucky I don’t actually live in this pit.”

Jack shook his head. He really needed to stop talking to the rats. It probably made them feel welcome. But he couldn’t resist one last warning. “You better not touch the coffee, Fuzzface.”

CHAPTER TWO

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Jack’s ring tightened on his finger, interrupting his morning coffee ritual. He ignored the jingle of the front door bells and the flash of green light in his peripheral vision.

“You’re early.” Jack didn’t raise his voice. He figured dragons had good hearing.

A few seconds later, Marin joined him in his office at the back of the store. “Nice bells.”

Overkill maybe, but after Marin had surprised him yesterday they’d seemed like a good addition. “They were sitting around the store. That happens a lot, actually. I need something, have a look around, and there it is.”

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow and tilted her head.

“What? It’s a junk shop. It’s not like I keep great records on my stock. I buy most of this crap by the box.” He opened the small fridge under the coffee station and pulled out milk.

“Hmm.” She sat down in one of his client chairs. “And, by the way, I’m only five minutes early.”

“The front door was locked.” Jack tried to be pissed that she’d picked his front door lock, but he couldn’t quite work up to it.

Marin stared back at him without comment.

“And I haven’t had my coffee.”

She glanced at the half-empty pot of coffee.

“I’ve only had one cup of coffee. And quit being such a smartass.” When she didn’t apologize—as if he thought she would—he asked, “Would you like a cup?”

“Yes, thank you.”

He handed her a cup of black coffee. If she wanted milk or sugar, she was on her own. Once he’d sat down behind his desk, he said, “Minimum wage. Forty hours a week, no overtime, no benefits. You work in the shop or on cases, as I decide.”

“Minimum wage?” She looked amused, rather than worried.

If she wasn’t working for the cash, then why? He mentally thumped himself. Didn’t matter and he didn’t care. If it became relevant, then he’d worry about it.

“You came to me,” Jack reminded her.

“Yes.” She wrapped her hands around her coffee mug. Closely trimmed nails, no polish—practical.

He waited. He could use her. Needed her, really. But he wasn’t about to start this relationship from a position of weakness.

Marin gave him an odd look he couldn’t interpret, then said, “If that was an employment offer, I accept.”

Jack opened a drawer and pulled out a few forms. He pushed them across the desk and handed her a pen. “You’re hired.” He turned his attention to his computer, trying to figure out the best travel options for the two of them and whether his travel budget would cover it. When he saw that she hadn’t yet picked up the pen, he said, “You’ve got five minutes to finish that. One of my gigs just got moved up.”

Marin perked up, clearly waiting for details.

Jack pointed to the paperwork. “Five minutes.”

Marin grabbed the pen and started writing.

Five minutes later, Jack figured driving was the only option. No problem—he’d just hired a driver. Sort of. And with Marin behind the wheel, he could get in some work.

Marin handed her paperwork to Jack.

“Any chance you have a go bag?” Jack asked.

She nodded.

“With you?”

“Yes.” Her eyes widened slightly, the only sign that she was dying of curiosity. She had to be. She was the type: one part puzzle geek, one part adventurer, and two parts control freak.

Great, his inner grumpy voice moaned. That meant four parts pain in his ass.

Stuffing her paperwork in his to-be-filed drawer, Jack said, “We’re headed to Louisiana.”

“Now?” She didn’t look ruffled as she asked.

“Now.” Jack left her sitting in his office while he went to the back to fiddle with the air conditioning. He wasn’t leaving the A/C running on high while he was gone.

On his way to the door, he called over his shoulder, “You coming?”

Before he’d flipped the sign to closed, she was standing behind him. Okay. Mental note: dragons are strong and fast.

As he locked the shop door, he told her, “We’re driving.”

Marin looked skeptical. “Uh, maybe I’m driving?”

“Oh, yeah. I have to work on the way.” He stopped when Marin fell behind. “What?”

She looked at his car parked in the street about ten feet away, blinked, and said, “I meant that we can take my car.”

Why was everyone so distrustful of his Jeep? The thing ran and ran. It was a great car.

“Which one’s yours?” He grinned when she pointed to a Range Rover Sport. “Done. Why am I paying you? Are you sure you don’t want to work as an unpaid intern?”

“Too late. You already hired me.” She raised her eyebrows slightly. “And I am not intern material.”

“Whatever you say.” Jack retrieved his laptop, go bag, and cell charger from the Jeep, then slammed the door shut. “SPI doesn’t pay mileage.”

“Spy? Ah, S.P.I. Spirelli Paranormal Investigations. Cute.” Her voice indicated it was anything but. Marin climbed into the driver’s seat. “As for mileage—I figured. But you’re definitely paying for gas. You have an address for me?” Her hand hovered over the GPS.

“Miersburg, Louisiana. I’m not sure where we’re staying yet.” Jack plugged in his cell charger and started charging his phone. Then he set up a hot spot and pulled out his laptop. “We’ll be gone overnight, possibly a few days. No dog at the house, right?”

“No dog, no significant other, no roommate, and no plants.” Marin glanced at Jack. “I don’t suppose you’re planning to murder me, cut me into little pieces, and bury the parts in five states?”

“Only if you really piss me off.” Jack rubbed his neck. “Okay. Only if you really piss me off, I suddenly become fire resistant, and there’s zero chance of being hunted down by a pack of dragons and tortured in retaliation.”

“Uh-huh. It’s a clan of dragons, by the way. Or a flight or a weyr, not a pack. Bad idea to compare dragons to Lycan. It’s a sensitive topic.” As she spoke, Marin was slowly making her way out of East Austin and heading to the highway.

She didn’t look offended.

“Seriously?” Jack couldn’t resist asking. The dragons he’d met didn’t seem all that sensitive.

“Yup.”

Jack turned his attention back to the case file notes on his laptop. “So—SPI was hired to escort Charlotte Sneed, a Louisiana earth witch, on a shopping expedition in Austin.”

“Shopping. In Austin. She needed a bodyguard for that?” Marin tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “Never mind. Why are we driving to Miersburg for an Austin babysitting job?”

“Because the job has changed. Calvin Sneed, the client’s husband, contacted me this morning. His wife disappeared yesterday, and he’s refusing to contact local police. He’s asked us to find her. I told him he really needed to call the police, but that just made him more agitated.”

Marin snorted. Quietly, but it was unmistakable.

“I get it—her disappearance is likely related to the magic community or he wouldn’t have SPI looking into it.” Jack tipped his head back onto the headrest and closed his eyes. He hated complicated jobs. Bodyguard on a shopping trip in a town where he knew many, if not all, of the players in the magic-using community—that wasn’t complicated. He turned to look at Marin. “Don’t suppose you know anything about the magic-using community in Miersburg?”

Marin glanced at him then pulled her gaze back to the road. He took that to mean: Hell no, you idiot.

Eyes back on his computer, he said, “You have a lot of attitude for someone on probation.”

“Or an acceptable amount, considering we’re in my car and left Austin city limits at least ten minutes ago.”

Jack shrugged and went back to his computer, looking at the few notes he’d made over his first cup of coffee—before Marin had arrived. “No pack in Miersburg, but I’m waiting to hear from the Texas Pack leader—John Braxton—about any strays that may be in the area.”

“Any other witches? Is Charlotte part of a coven, for example? Or does she have any local competition?” Marin asked.

“Not according to the husband. The closest witch lives about two hours away and is a friend of Charlotte’s. What exactly would be competition for a local earth witch? There’s no active Coven of Light branch in the area.” Jack had checked on Coven connections before he’d taken the job. They were, basically, a large institution of whackadoo witch zealots, and he wasn’t getting anywhere near them if he could help it.

“You know, earth witches are tied to their communities. Special teas for the sick, gardening advice for the neighbors, PTA president. That kind of thing can generate jealousy and a sense of competition, especially in such a small town.” Marin glanced at the GPS screen, tapped the screen to bring up the route map, then said, “This place has to be under twenty or thirty thousand, based on what I’m seeing on the GPS.”

Jack stopped typing and watched her closely as he asked, “You’re from a small town, then?”

Marin’s gaze didn’t waver from the road. “Or maybe I just know witches really well.”

“Whatever. No local Coven of Light, no local witch rivalries. And the husband had no idea about other magic-users.” Jack googled Miersburg. “Around ten thousand. A town that small, I’m betting they’d know if there was a spell caster running around.”

“Maybe.” Marin tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “Don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d pay a speeding ticket?”

“No.”

Apparently, she was willing to pick up the ticket herself. That, or riding with him was driving her nuts, because she didn’t reply and sped up to around eighty-five. Fine by him.

Before he got wrapped up in research and forgot, he asked, “How did you get through my ward at the shop?”

Marin pressed her lips together. “What do you know about dragons?”

Jack squinted and adjusted his visor. “Let’s assume not much.”

Marin sighed. “We’re not like Lycan, because we don’t shape-shift. I’m a dragon, and I’m a woman.”

“Right—I got that part.”

Marin huffed in annoyance. “I’m not sure you do. I’m dragon and human—at the same time.”

She glanced at Jack, possibly to gauge his reaction. But he wasn’t even sure what his reaction was. What she described didn’t make sense. “Then why do I see either a dragon or a human whenever I’m around you guys? It seems like you’re picking one.”

She didn’t quite roll her eyes—but it sure felt like she had. “I choose which part of myself you see. Which part interacts on a physical plane with this world, but that doesn’t mean I’m not both dragon and woman at the same time. You’re thinking in terms of humans with magical talents—a human who can use his magic to shift to a wolf, or crocodile, or jaguar. But I’m not a human with some magical ability. It’s not a question of having magic—I am magic.”

What the fuck? Jack asked the first question that came to mind. “Are you supposed to tell people this shit?”

She gave him one of those toothy smiles. “Most are smart enough not to ask.”

She definitely used that creepy smile to intimidate.

“Cut it out with the dragon grin. How does all of this apply to walking through my ward?”

Marin shrugged. “I choose which part of myself exists at any given time in this world, but I can choose, for a very brief moment, to allow neither of my forms to exist in this world.”

“So you’re saying that you didn’t walk through the ward? That you unexisted yourself through it?” Jack shook his head. “That sounds like teleportation to me.”

“Not teleportation. A nonphysical part of myself remains, an anchor in this reality. It’s that anchor that moves and to which my physical body returns. Neat, right?” She gave him a brilliant smile. A genuine one, not her creepy alligator smile.

Jack laughed, her excitement catching. “Yes. That’s a handy skill.”

They both fell silent, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable quiet. Jack was pleasantly surprised she’d shared so much. He’d keep his mouth shut, and clearly Marin knew that. One small step forward in his first employer-employee relationship. He tried not to cringe. Relationships with people—even professional ones—were always so damned complicated.

CHAPTER THREE

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Calvin Sneed ushered Jack and Marin into his study. “Can I offer you a drink?” When they declined, Calvin motioned for them to sit down. Concern was etched across his face and his eyes looked tired, like he hadn’t slept well.

Jack pulled out a notebook. “What can you tell me?”

Calvin dropped into the chair behind his desk. “I didn’t want to say over the phone, but the reason Charlotte hired a bodyguard . . . I mean, she’s been shopping in Austin by herself for years. She buys—I don’t even know what—things she can’t get locally. But you don’t care about that.” He cleared his throat. “We hired you as a precaution, because I was worried her Aunt Sylvia might try to meet with her in Austin, maybe even recruit her. Sylvia’s with the Coven of Light.”

“And that worried you? That Charlotte might run into her aunt?” Jack asked.

Calvin looked confused. “The Coven of Light? I thought you’d know about them, since you’re an insider.”

“I’m familiar with the Coven, but I don’t know of any Coven activity in Austin. Why now and why Austin?”

“Charlotte’s Aunt Sylvia called a few weeks ago. She was recruited by the Coven at least ten years ago, and Charlotte hadn’t had any contact with her in that time, except an occasional letter. Then she calls out of the blue. Charlotte was polite, but she didn’t encourage further contact. When her trip came up, I was a little nervous about her being so far from home.” Calvin sighed. “We don’t know where Sylvia lives now, but Charlotte’s family is originally from the Austin area. So traveling back to Austin so soon after they’d spoken . . . it just made Charlotte uncomfortable. Well, me, actually. Charlotte wasn’t afraid of her aunt.”

Calvin stalled—overcome or lost in thought, possibly. Jack prompted him quietly. “So you called SPI.”

“Right. We figured that if you met her and kept an eye on her while she was in town and she headed straight back, there shouldn’t be any problems.” Calvin blinked dazedly. “But then she didn’t come home yesterday, and we already knew about you, so I called.”

“Did Aunt Sylvia make any threats?”

“No, nothing like that. They parted on good terms. But she’s with the Coven.” Calvin looked at Jack like he’d lost a few marbles.

“I understand. I’m just trying to get a full picture.” Jack tried for a reassuring, sympathetic smile. Not his strong suit. “Is there any other reason that you suspect the Coven of Light is involved? Other than the proximity of Aunt Sylvia’s call?”

Calvin rubbed his face hard with both hands. “No. But I don’t know what else could have happened. Everyone loves Charlotte. She’s a genuinely caring person. She’s generous—with her time, her enthusiasm for projects . . .  You don’t understand. She heads up the annual Plants & Fans for Seniors fundraiser, mentors the Junior Geologists at the high school.” He paused, hesitating, and then continued, “She also does important work for the town. Not a job; Charlotte is a stay-at-home mom. But she’s working on a project for Miersburg.”

Marin nudged his foot. More discreet than an I-told-you-so, but equally annoying.

Jack ignored his sidekick and focused his attention on Calvin Sneed. “I understand—she has a lot of friends in town and people who look up to her.” When Calvin seemed satisfied that they appreciated his wife’s popularity and lack of enemies, Jack asked, “What can you tell me about your wife’s schedule yesterday?”

Calvin looked at him blankly. He closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them, he looked more purposeful. “Like I told you this morning: I realized she was missing a little before dinner. Yesterday was her night to cook, and we eat around 6:30—my son and Charlotte and I. I called at six, but she didn’t answer.”

Jack jotted down the beginning of a timeline.

“Where was Charlotte planning to be before dinner?” Marin asked the question in a voice Jack hadn’t yet heard from her. She sounded . . . compassionate.

“Looking for plants, herbs, flowers—that kind of thing.” Calvin smiled. “Hunting—that’s what we call it. Our little joke since—unlike most of Miersburg—we don’t hunt.”

Jack paused, letting Calvin drift back into the here and now at his own speed. Once Calvin made eye contact, he said, “And what about the rest of her day?”

Jack jotted down everything Calvin could remember about Charlotte’s schedule earlier in the day as he recounted it. When Calvin seemed tapped out on details, Jack asked him, “Do you mind if we have a look around?”

“Of course not. Do you want to start with Charlotte’s office? Her calendar will be there.” Calvin stopped and took a breath. The man looked exhausted.

Jack nodded, and Calvin immediately stood up, ushering both his guests out of the study to the back of the house.

Jack shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Charlotte’s “office” was actually a tidy little shed attached to a greenhouse. As he and Marin stood inside, he couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrasts. A rough tin shed on the exterior, her office was pleasantly clean and comfortably furnished on the inside. In fact, the interior was larger than it appeared from outside. He and Marin both fit comfortably with room to spare—enough for a large modern desk, an ergonomic chair, and a love seat. Charlotte spent some time in her office.

Calvin stood awkwardly in the doorway of the well-lit shed.

Jack scanned the room, spotting a large desk calendar blotter, as well as several deep desk drawers with no apparent locking mechanisms. “I think this will keep us busy, Calvin, if you don’t mind giving us a few minutes.” Calvin nodded, looking relieved. As he turned to go, Jack said, “One last thing: your wife’s phone number—the one you provided on the form—that was her cell number?”

“That’s right.” Calvin rattled off the number Jack had scrawled in his notes. With a pained smile, he backed out of the doorway and closed the door carefully.

Immediately, Jack turned to Marin and pulled out his phone. “Have a look at her calendar.” He dialed his tech contact’s number, and turned his back to Marin when Christina answered. “Hey. I have a cell number for you. Can you get a location for it?”

Christina, or Chris as her Pack buddies called her, replied in a distracted tone, “Now?” The sound of an insistent toddler echoed in the background but was quickly drowned out by a little girl’s screech.

Jack felt a hint of the discomfort he always experienced in Chris’s hectic household. Three kids were a lot of kids—especially when they were all moving at once. Her kids were mini-hoodlums—lovable little squirts, but always into something and constantly in motion. He muffled a groan. Apparently, Chris’s brood was overwhelming long-distance, too. Save him from a herd of small children. “Ah, soon? I’ve got a missing woman and the husband’s continuing to refuse our recommendation to report it.”

“Text the number, and I’ll be back to you in ten with an answer or update.” Then Chris hung up on him.

Jack pocketed his phone after texting her Charlotte’s name and number. Turning back to Marin, he asked, “Whatcha got?”

Marin wrinkled her nose. “A pretty boring life. Basically what the husband said: worked in the shed in the morning, picked up her son, Charlie, and dropped him at home, went ‘hunting.’ Then mysteriously failed to appear for dinner. We need to find out where she went hunting.”

“Yeah. And where her cell is.” Jack flipped through the contents of the top desk drawer. “Don’t suppose you found a map marking all her favorite collection spots?”

“No. But I did find what might be her collection list.” Marin pointed to a list of plants scrawled in the margins of the desk blotter calendar that covered a good portion of the desk’s surface.

Jack pulled out his notepad and wrote down the seven plant names: pine-barren deathcamas (crow poison), redbay, le sureau, swamp willow, black nightshade, cattails, and mayapple. Several of them had lines running through them, as if they’d been ticked off a grocery list. Three remained, and he put an asterisk next to those. And crow poison—or pine-barren deathcamas, what the heck?—was underlined three times.

“Uh . . . you know you can use your phone for that. For documenting evidence.” Marin waved the phone in her right hand at him. “I already snapped a picture of the list. And the calendar.”

He stuffed the pad back in his jeans pocket and squatted down to sift through a mostly empty wastepaper basket. “What are the chances hubby knows where she collects her ingredients?”

Marin flipped through the previous few months on the calendar. “No idea.”

Done with the trash, Jack stood up and moved back to finish the desk drawers. “I didn’t say a word about your driving, right?”

“Yeah. What’s wrong with my driving?”