Off the Grid
By Faith Hunter
This story takes place just before Broken Soul. In it, you’ll meet Nell, who will be getting her own series! The first book, BLOOD OF THE EARTH will be published in August 2016.
Close to dawn, I spotted two names that could mean assistance in my quest. John Ingram and his wife, Nell, had left the church and moved to the other side of the ridge some years past. Outcast or reformed, I didn’t know, but people who had former ties with cults could provide helpful suggestions. So could access to their property, one hundred fifty acres that shared a narrow border with God’s Cloud’s church property. “Oh yeah,” I said to the silent room. “Oooooh yeah.” I sent the couple’s names to Alex for a full workup, and a text to Eli to look at the boundary of the two properties as possible access points.
I was back at the clan home half an hour before dawn, made my report, and then rode Fang into the rising sun and back to the hotel, where I sacked out for four hours of desperately needed sleep.
Unfortunately, when I woke, it was to learn that John Ingram had died several years before, and that his young widow had no high school diploma, no GED, no telephone, no cell phone recorded under her name, no computer, and a dozen guns registered to her. She used wood, solar, and wind to power her meager needs, and her house had a well and a septic tank. She had a driver’s license, and paid insurance on an old Chevy truck. Nell lived off the grid. In other words, Nell was a recluse. The only thing she did have was a very active library card. She might be a hermit, but Nell was an eclectically self-educated hermit who had library books checked out on varied subjects, and the books were checked out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Every week. For the last five years.
Nell studied herbs, plants, farming, carpentry, electric wiring, remodeling, world and U.S. history, business mathematics, banking, religious history, and philosophy. Currently she had five books checked out: Philosophy for Beginners, written by Osborne and illustrated by Edney;, Solar Power for Your Home, by David Findley; A History of the Church in the Middle Ages, by Donald Logan; Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English; and a trilogy of contemporary romances by Nora Roberts. There were a dozen different music CDs and two DVDs checked out, one a chick flick and the other a techno-disaster thriller. Yeah. Eclectic. But it was Wednesday. And according to the library checkout timetable, which Alex had easily hacked, Nell Ingram always left the library at two p.m.
I packed up and took off on Fang, most of my weapons left in the hotel room so I didn’t scare anyone. My cell was fully charged, and I felt as though I was part of the world again. Being so cut off had been creepy. I had no idea when a cell phone had become part of my security blanket, along with the blades, stakes, and guns, but it had.
Knox County’s main library was called the Lawson-McGhee Public Library, located on the corner of West Church Avenue and Walnut Street, with a little public park behind it, and public parking close by, where I left Fang, two spaces down from Nell’s beat-up but scrupulously clean pickup truck, which I confirmed by her license plate number. Security was so much easier in the modern day, with access to so many public records protected by such poor security.
I wandered around the block, scoping out the neighborhood, which had churches, public buildings, trees, and clean streets, and decided the location was pretty, even if the library itself wasn’t. The building looked like something out of the seventies, bulky and blocky. It was built of nondescript brown brick, had few windows, a few emergency exits that sounded an alarm when opened, and no security cameras on the exterior.
As I approached the front entrance, I saw two homeless, bearded guys sitting on the front steps, being rousted by a cop. They needed showers and access to washing machines, but looked as though they preferred to sleep out under the night sky, weather permitting, or in a tent, rather than in a house. One of the guys had dozens of military patches on his old jacket, and the other had only one arm, no prosthesis, and stood with a hard lean to one side, as if he lived with pain.
Just on the off chance that the men were really U.S. veterans, I gave them each a twenty to get a decent meal. Maybe they’d spend it on cheap wine, but how they used my gift wasn’t something I could control. Mostly I just wanted to say thank you for their service, and say it loud enough to remind the cop of that gift. When the homeless men took off, they were happy, the cop was thoughtful, and I was, well, I was still me, a two-souled Cherokee skinwalker who, at least now, had constant Internet access. But I was in a city I barely knew from previous security jobs, not well enough to rescue a kidnapped vamp. I had no backup, a thought that once would never have crossed my mind but now seemed acutely important. I liked working with the Youngers. I missed working with them, and hated that they were so far away.
I felt the magic the moment I walked inside the library. It wasn’t powerful or deadly like the magic of Molly, my best friend and the mother of the aforementioned godchildren, or cold like most vamps’ magic. At first, this energy had no taste, no smell, and there was nothing I could see, unlike the glowing motes of witch power and the gray place of the change of my own magic. Yet I could sense it on the air, as if it danced across my skin, testing me, trying to get an impression of what I was. I stepped to the side of the entry and worked to exude calm as I studied the place, searching out the person who emitted the odd sensation, and trying to discern what I was really feeling.
I drew on my Beast’s senses. She was awake, deep inside me, alert from the joy of riding Fang through the city. She loved riding a motorcycle, the wind in my/our face, the sights flashing by, the smells that reminded her of home, of the mountain world that we had left behind for the contract in NOLA. It had been supposed to be a short gig, but it had blossomed into a lot more. I opened my lips and drew in the air, the synesthesia-like feeling I rarely experienced reaching up and taking hold of me.
The magic was faint but not weak, a green-gold with an edge of smoky charcoal gray. It smelled like sunlight on leaves in old-forest woods, and like the fire that would raze it to the ground, the scent indistinct and dampened, as if reined in. No human alive could have followed such a scent, but I had Beast’s senses to draw on, and I had also been a bloodhound a time or two. When I had shifted back to human, I was pretty sure that my Beast had hung on to some of the olfactory senses bred into the tracking dog’s DNA. I located the scent trail walked along it.
Knox County’s main public library had books, a video department, an audio department, and, like any modern library, it also had a room of loaner PCs, which was where the scent originated. I followed it through the library to the computer room, where old-fashioned PCs were kept for public use. The magic was coming from the far corner, from a girl hunched over the screen, her fingers flying over the keyboard as she searched the Internet. I settled into a chair within line of sight of her but from behind, and not close enough so that she’d see me unless she was hunting me. I logged on, watching her from a safe distance. I had only an old driver’s license photo to go by, but I thought that this, this mousy little thing, this unregistered magic user, could possibly be Nell Nicholson Ingram. How ’bout that?
Something about her scent was teasing forward in my memory, my ancient, less-than-half-recalled Cherokee memory from a childhood so far in the past that no one alive today could remember. Well, except for the undead, who lived forever if they weren’t staked or beheaded. But there was something I couldn’t place in that scent memory. At least, not yet.
The girl had brown hair, straight and long, tanned skin, slight rings of dirt deep under her fingernails though she smelled and looked clean. She wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, bibbed overalls (what they once called hog-washers), and lace-up work boots. But the clothes weren’t a fashion statement. More as if they were what she wore because she had to, as if she was too poor to afford anything else. She could be a farmer. Or work in a greenhouse, or for a landscape company, off the books, as there was no record of that on her meager tax forms. She was a woman who put her hands in the soil.
Her magic almost had an earth-witch smell to it, but it felt different. Very different. It wasn’t something I could put into words, but the difference pricked my skin. She was slight but wiry, muscular but not in a bodybuilder way, more as though she did hard physical labor work. And she looked hyperalert, as if she stayed on edge, as though she was always in jeopardy. There was a slight scent of adrenaline in the air, tinged with worry. But she didn’t seem afraid, not exactly. Just tense and vigilant. I managed to snap a photo with my cell.
She whipped up her head and looked around the room, eyes narrow, mouth firm. It was indeed Nell Ingram, older, harder, but her. I bent to the screen, typing in my e-mail addy and sending notification to the Youngers that I’d found Nell. Bent over, I looked involved and unaware of anything around me, while I kept her in my peripheral vision, smelling, knowing that fight-or-flight impulse she was feeling.
After several minutes of indecision, Nell went back to her screen, and I was cautious about centering my attention on her again. Her magic was peculiar, but it clearly had a sensory net of spatial awareness, an ability to tell when she was being studied or hunted. My Beast had the same awareness. Most wild things did.
Faith Hunter, fantasy writer, was born in Louisiana and raised all over the south. She writes three Urban Fantasy series: the Skinwalker series, featuring Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee skinwalker who hunts rogue vampires. The Soulwood series, featuring earth magic user Nell Ingram. And the Rogue Mage novels, a dark, urban, post-apocalyptic, fantasy series featuring Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage. (There is a role playing game based on the series, ROGUE MAGE.)Under the pen name Gwen Hunter, she writes action-adventure, mysteries, and thrillers. As Faith and Gwen, she has 30+ books in print in 29 countries.Hunter writes full-time, tries to keep house, and is a workaholic with a passion for travel, jewelry making, white-water kayaking, and writing. She and her husband love to RV, traveling with their rescued Pomeranians to whitewater rivers all over the Southeast.