Since Amber had moved out, Mira's apartment had grown lonely and a little strange. She did check on Amber and her child to make sure all was well, but the monastery was a long way for her with no car. Because of the secrecy necessary, she wouldn't take a cab, either. She spent some time when she could with Drake, but he had a busy schedule and a duty to his court that excluded her. More, she couldn't escape the feeling that, after they were together, it just wasn't enough. It wasn't that their private time was boring. It was just that she didn't feel he'd be willing to do the things she really wanted.
The rest of her time away from friends was spent holed up in her apartment to avoid contact with other fae of her court. Kiera had moved in recently, but she kept to herself. Kiera wanted to leave the state, she'd professed to Mira, but didn't have any money.
Minerva had stopped by because she had a little time tonight and thought Mira might like to go out. Or perhaps it was more that it would be good for Mira to get out of the place Remy had acquired for her. In her time she'd seen people who slowly lost touch with what made them at least in some part human. She saw that happening to Mira and felt it an unnecessary waste.
Minerva had notified the front desk and they'd told her to go on up. When she arrived at Mira's door, she found it was already open for her to walk inside. She saw a dark haired woman pass through the living room inside as she dug through an overnight bag. She looked up in surprise at Minerva.
"Mira!" she said loud enough for her voice to carry upstairs. "Your guest is here."
"Just a minute, Minerva, I'll be right down," Mira called from upstairs.
The dark haired woman bade Minerva have a seat and hurried to her bedroom, leaving Minerva alone. The apartment looked to be in disorder. Clothes were lying here and there on chairs and a pile of them had been picked out of a hamper near the couch. An open box of pizza sat with dried up husks of pizza slices still in it on the kitchen counter. The only "clean" place to sit was at the dining table, which was littered with what looked like carefully clipped news clippings and battered notebook.
None of this seemed like the Mira she knew. First of all she was pretty sure Mira didn't even own half as many clothes as were strewn about. Nor did Mira seem to enjoy mortal foods -- her fridge was always stocked with bizarre fruits, vegetables, and tubers plucked from.... wherever it was fairies went to pluck such things.
Minvera took a closer look at the notebook and clippings, wondering what it all was.
One clipping read:
- Belize Jungle Expedition Missing Women.
- The article went on to indicate that after wild boars ravaged their camp site, several of the women went missing. Evidence of jaguar activity in the area suggested a tragic ending. This ended an ill-fated expedition whose beginning included unverified accounts of naked women appearing and disappearing in the jungle.
The clipping was accompanied by several others that had been highlighted and cut out in followup articles.
- Update: One of the women was found in the brush a few miles from camp, her neck broken. Experts believe she was in a tree and fell, based on the spinal trauma.
- Update: The other three women were found wandering the jungle a few weeks later. All claimed amnesia and returned to the States.
Mira had written some notes about the article.
- Names of the women survivors:
- Bethany Murtle
- Tia Deacan
- Harley Jacobson
- Spoke to them on the phone one after another. Wasn’t easy to get them to talk to me about anything, but suspicion confirmed: they are all pregnant.
- I’m certain now they had been “guests” of the Jaguar Man.
- Why let these women go?
She found other notes in the notebook. She found the following to be relevant.
- Still looking for that Tlaloc. Ally of JM? Why is he here?
- Need to find a folklorist. Other tales of J-men in the jungle? Same tribe? How do I learn more?
- University in Phoenix to hold a guest lecture. [Pasted advert featuring a survivor of the latest jungle expedition in Belize looking for Maya ruins.] Harley Jacobson to speak??! First time in public since returning to the States.
When Minerva heard Mira's footstep at the top of the stairs, she had just enough time to close the notebook and put things back as they were.
Mira approached her with a smile. The nymph was dressed in a nice, simple one-piece dress as was her style, the sort she wore if she was going out. "I'm really glad to see you, Minerva," she said. "I feel like I don't get to see you as much as I would like. I wish I didn't have to leave so soon."
"Where are you going?" Minerva asked.
"Phoenix," she said. "Just a couple days at most."
"What for?" Minerva was pretty sure Mira had no friends in that city, so if the nymph said it was to visit them, she'd be lying.
"There's a lecture I want to catch." Mira wanted to tell Minerva, confide in someone the things she'd been researching. Over the nine months since that fateful trip to the jungle, she felt as if this was something she had to do on her own, that it was just a paranoid fantasy she'd managed to build up. But if she could get to Phoenix, see Harley Jacobson, she might confirm some of the things that had been tormenting her. She feared Minerva might think her as crazy to be worrying about this as Rey did.
"What about? It must be pretty important if you're traveling all the way there for one evening." Minerva watched Mira's face curiously.
"There was this expedition in the Yucatan about nine months ago. Four women went missing and three came back. One of them is going to speak there about her experience. Kind of a therapy thing, I guess, but I wanted to hear what she said because I think I know who was responsible."
Minerva looked at her steadily. Her expression said she should have to interrogate Mira just to get simple questions answered and Mira knew she was right.
"Okay," Mira said as her hands fidgeted with the him of her dress. "Why do I care. I wouldn't normally. Not my business. But I think these women were taken by a kind of ... serial rapist."
Minerva took Mira's hands to make her stop fidgeting. "It happened to you, didn't it?"
Mira looked in the direction of Kiera's room, but she hadn't come out yet. She nodded. "Yes."
"How is that even possible?" Minerva was well aware of a few of Mira's abilities. Any of them could deter a would-be rapist easily.
"My latest theory is these guys have some kind of pheromone that puts women into heat. Whatever it is, it's powerful."
"Okay, so how is going to hear this lecture going to help?"
"I need to confirm if my theory is correct," Mira answered.
Minerva shook her head confused. "But if these rapists are in a jungle far from here, why does it matter at this point?"
"I also have a theory that they aren't in the jungle anymore. I believe they've come to Mythic City."
"You think they are after you?"
"No. Well yes maybe, and my friend Rey. My friends think I'm paranoid and seeing things that aren't really there, but I know one of them is here. He has my old cell phone! The one I had in my pants pocket when they were left behind the day I took Rey and escaped those fiends."
Mira pulled her hands away from Minerva and paced anxiously. When she turned away, Minerva noticed a pair of little bruises on the back and to the right side of Mira's neck. She recognized them for what they were -- bite marks that had been healed, the skin perfectly healed over but the internal hemorrhaging still evident. "I'm not seeing things! I'm not that person who couldn't tell her dreams from reality anymore. Please believe me? I really think were-jaguars have come to Mythic City."
Just because one can tell the difference between dreams and reality, Minerva thought, does not mean one cannot misinterpret any 'evidence' one might find. UFO hunters and believers that aliens built the pyramids were a perfect example. "What information do you hope to get from the lecture, when over ninety nine percent of the world does not believe in the existence of the supernatural?"
"The lecture isn't about the supernatural as far as I know. I hope to catch her after the lecture to talk about what really happened. She had claimed amnesia, but I suspect it was something so disturbing no one else would believe it. If I'm wrong then I'll reconsider everything that happened. I'll come home and sleep a little better."
Mira glanced at the clock. "Listen, I need to get down to the cab before he leaves. Thanks for stopping by. I wish I wasn't rushing away."
Minerva nodded, still considering. The trip to the jungle she mentioned must have happened around the time the rifts were closed around Mythic. She hadn't heard Mira or her friends had gone to a jungle anywhere. They had been supposedly working on closing the rifts, not touring Central America. What was all this anyway?
"Kiera! Ready?" Mira called. The woman answered to the affirmative and appeared out of her bedroom with a tightly packed day bag. Mira grabbed hers and they all left. On the elevator down, Mira chatted about the mundane details of the trip. Taking a cab to the bus station and from there straight to Phoenix. The lecture was tomorrow during the day, she hoped to talk with this Harley and catch a bus again for home that night or the next morning.
Four days later there was still no sign of Mira or her roommate.
It was early evening on Saturday night when Rey received a call that surprised her. Minerva, one of a few vampires she knew associated with Remy Depres and whom she'd only met a few times, appeared on the caller ID. Rey set up in bed, ignoring the fact the sheet fell away and she was bare from the waist up and answered the phone. "Hello."
"Good evening," Minerva said in a friendly tone. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but I'm concerned about a mutual friend of ours. Have you spoken with Mira lately?"
"Not really. I saw her four or five days ago," Rey replied. "Why?"
There was a pause. "I need to ask you something about what happened during the time the ... breaches were closed. Did you in fact journey to a jungle?"
"Yes," Rey said, wondering where Minerva was going with this.
"Okay. I guess I hadn't realized that." It actually brought up more questions, but that could be addressed another time. "Mira seems to have been deeply affected by something that happened there. She's been tracking news and people who returned from an archeological expedition that apparently reported some strange things. Several days ago I stopped in at her apartment and found she was packing to go to Phoenix. Something about a lecture by one of the members of that expedition. She said she had hoped to return two days ago. I was wondering if she'd said anything to you about what she was concerned about?"
"Oh no," Rey said softly. "She's obsessed with the idea that someone may have followed us back to Mythic and is after us. I think she's making a mountain out of a molehill and that it's just coincidence. Obviously, she hasn't just let it go. What was it about the expedition that got her attention?"
"Apparently several women from the expedition went missing. One turned up dead later, apparently from a fall out of a tree. The other three were recovered wandering the jungle. All three claimed amnesia. I... snooped through Mira's notes when I was at her place Monday and she'd written that she'd contacted them. They are all pregnant, apparently. I don't know what that's got to do with anything except that it must be important since Mira thought it important enough to write down. One of these women, Harley Jacobson I think, was to have a lecture or be part of a lecture on survival in the jungle over in Phoenix. She told me she wanted to see Ms. Jacobson after the lecture to discuss what happened to her."
Rey made a sigh of exasperation. "We have no idea where the heck we were. How could she possibly have tied the expedition to what happened to us. I don't suppose you know where Mira was planning on staying when she was in Phoenix?"
"I'm afraid not," Minerva said. A new thought occurred to her. Something that might explain both erratic behavior as well as Mira's apparent leaps of logic. "Is it possible she turned her... oracular skills to the problem? Found out something she couldn't prove but knew was true?" Mira's ability as an oracle was a secret, but Minerva had learned a few things by reading between a few lines when Remy discussed his plans, and when she'd heard certain stories about rogue werewolves who'd wanted to used that skill for themselves.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised," Rey said. "Do you know if she took her 'research' with her?"
"She left everything at her apartment," Minerva said.
"Good. If I can get a hold of that stuff, maybe I can figure out the first step to finding her."
"Good luck. I hope you find her." Minerva signed off.
Rey was about to put the phone down when it rang again. This time, it was Less.
The first step in setting up the undercover operation Mira had proposed with regard to infiltrating the Brimstone Barony was infrastructure. Mira had volunteered to go under cover so long as her Duke would not take issue with it. As far as Less knew, that wasn't going to be a problem.
Therefore, before she enacted the plan, she required some kind of support network to operate behind the scenes. It would do no good to send her in undercover if she had no way to move information back to him via his network. Worse still if she had no way to get out once she was in place.
Sending out feelers was a slow, careful process. He needed the areas influenced by the Brimstone Barony and under its control scouted. He needed to know where Mira, acting as his agent, would be. In this, Claire had been indispensable, as always. Progress was being made, but more time was required. To rush into this risked discovery. Discovery would jeopardize not only his operation, but put Mira in immediate danger as well.
This careful coordination required planning and that is where frustration was beginning to set in. Mira was supposed to meet with him after work last night, but was a no-show. He'd sat drinking tea or paced, wondering where the hell she'd gotten to all night. Calls to her apartment were fruitless and the girl hadn't had a cell phone in months. That was something that needed to change. Whatever her paranoia about carrying one was, communication was vital to get anywhere.
"Sir?" Claire prodded him, interrupting his chain introspection. "Penny for your thoughts?"
"You've seen Penny?" He rounded to face her, confused by old memories. "Sorry. My thoughts? Not for sale. Well, not for a penny!" His worry for Mira was causing his brain to skip. He took a deep breath. Claire's patient eyes calmed him down. "Except to you, of course. And in for a penny, in for a pound, I should say. Mira's gone missing. And without her, our op against the Barony falls apart." There were no secrets between them. "And with all the time I've been spending on surveillance of east Mythic, setting up drops and training operatives I haven't even started interrogating Bria. It's a disgrace! To Summer. I'm a disgrace to Summer!"
Claire looked concerned. Her leader was truly flustered by this. "Sir, please calm yourself. I realize that she is a friend and potentially our key operative -- only operative -- in the Duke's court and our primary covert operative going into the Baron's own court. We will find her. Or you will. No one remains hidden for long when you decide to look. Now, who might Mira be in contact with besides yourself? Perhaps you should identify where she is so that we can proceed with preparing for the operation agains the Barony."
"Yes, thank you, Claire." He squeezed her hands in his. "The Duke, Drake, Remy, Kiera was staying with her, Sissy I suppose, Johnny! And Rey, of course." He stopped his frenetic listing of people and reached with exaggerated slowness for his phone. "Yes, Rey might know where she is."
Less rang up Rey.
"Hi, Less," Rey said. "What's up?"
"Mira didn't show up for our meeting last night. Have you seen her?"
"No," Rey replied. "I just found out she went to Phoenix and was supposed to be back two days ago."
"Phoenix? Why on earth would she go there? We had...appointments." Less took a breath, taking strength from Claire's presence once again. "Does this have something to do with all those damn vampires?"
"Mira got it into her head the werejaguars followed us back to Mythic," Rey said. "And believes a group of women with an archaeological team that had gone to Belize were also his victims. One of them was giving a lecture in Phoenix and she wanted to go listen to it, and try to talk to her afterward."
"But why didn't she tell anyone?" Less sighed. He realized it was something Mira had done, would do, and would do again. And again. "Can you spare the time for a trip to Phoenix? It's not like her to not contact us once the initial impulse has worn off. I'll book the bus tickets immediately."
"Why do we need bus tickets when I have a car," Rey said more than asked. "Mira did tell someone, obviously, otherwise I'd never have found out, but didn't tell us because she thought we'd probably tell her she's being paranoid."
Less wasn't sure the fact that Mira had told a vampire but not them was all that reassuring. "Okay, well that's good news about your car. Are you prepared if we do find were-jaguars down there?" He was talking about guns. They needed to be dropped before they got within claws-reach.
"I'm hoping we can find a peaceful resolution," Rey said. "Just because they're shape shifters doesn't mean they're animals and cannot be reasoned with." She smiled when she felt a warm hand stroke her back, and she couldn't keep the pleasure of it from her voice. "I'm going to make a couple of calls, see what else I can find out some more details as to what she's up to and where she planned to go. I'll meet you at your apartment in about two, maybe two and a half hours. Make sure to pack an overnight bag in case this can't be resolved quickly. And I have a quick question for you. How expansive is your information network? Does it extend into other areas of the country?"
"To a degree, yes." Less had helped the fae relocate to many different areas.
"How about Phonenix, or New England?" Rey remembered her conversation with Lyla, and hoped Less might have contacts back east. If he heard anything about what was going on, or if things were silent.
"Phoenix, yes. Back east I'd have to shake a few trees."
"That's okay," Rey replied. "Phoenix is more important anyway. Maybe you could find out if anything wonky has been going on, and not just in the fae community. I'll see you in two and a half hours, and I'll call or text if I'm going to be late."
Less pocketed his phone and looked at Claire with a thoughtful expression. "Ever been to Phoenix?"
Claire raised an eyebrow and looked at him quizzically. "Sure. It's large, dry and dirty from the constant construction throwing filth into the air, which then hangs there. And it takes hours to drive anywhere because they are constantly congested. I suggest avoiding that city if possible."
Rey disconnected the call, set her cell phone back down on her night stand, then rolled over to face Chase. "I gotta go Mira hunting," she said, running her fingers up his slightly whiskery cheek and into his hair. "So much for all weekend in bed." She smiled ruefully, then gave him a quick kiss and got out of bed to head to the shower.
He watched her silently, arms folded. He didn't get a lot time free and wasn't exactly thrilled at the news. "Who'd she piss off now?"
"I have no idea," Rey replied, and filled him in on the situation.
With a sigh that showed his disappointment, he got out of her way and told her he'd be around later if her errand ended soon. Otherwise, he'd call his contacts and check on the latest bounties.