Given the speed his lovingly restored XKE could travel, Afterthought, South Carolina was less than an hour’s drive from Damon Jackson’s Savannah office. Roaring down the rural two-lane, Jax glimpsed a brick-pillared welcome sign hidden behind an untrimmed crape myrtle and slowed to a crawl to avoid speed traps. This assignment was far beneath his skills, but he carried out each mission as if the world depended on it, as in fact, it had upon occasion. This wasn’t one of them.
Except for his time in service, Jax had lived in the South all his life. The muddy pond and stand of ancient trees after the welcome sign, the county seat’s neat streets, ornamented with ancient, shiny-leaved magnolias, didn’t charm him. The flowerpots beneath the Victorian lampposts left him unimpressed. His focus was on finding the firm’s young ward and prying her out of grasping hands.
He scanned the brick shops—none more than three stories. The church steeple towered a floor higher than the courthouse’s cupola. The lack of a Wal-Mart or Piggly-Wiggly wasn’t unusual. Like so many other small towns, Afterthought was lost to the faded glory of the Civil War.
With his top down, he could hear sixties music pumping from the Oldies’ Café. A Siamese cat licked its paws in the sun of a shop window. Glancing at the cat, Jax almost missed the sign beneath a gabled overhang, but he braked at the glitter of a crystal ball in the big plate window. PSYCHIC SOLUTIONS AGENCY written in gold lettering adorned a small black plaque dangling over the sidewalk.
He gave the Malcolms credit for being a class above MADAME THERESAS TAROT READING, which was the usual front for unimaginative flakes and con artists. He glanced in the window as he rolled past, but the sun was too bright against the glass to see inside.
Jax parallel-parked the XKE in front of Hank’s Hardware. Climbing out, he strode past a stand of tomato seedlings back to the agency. The cat had disappeared. Jax shrugged off the stares from behind windows up and down the street. All small towns had built-in neighborhood watches. If the kid was here, everyone in town knew it. She couldn’t hide.
Even though the door was already open, a bell rang as he stepped inside. Momentarily blinded from the sun and the dozens of spinning crystals and whirligigs, he had to wait until his eyes adjusted before noticing the curvaceous female behind the counter in the back.
He blinked again to be certain his vision was clear.
Medusa was his first reaction—except riotous orange curls replaced snakes. Her stony gaze, however, ought to have frozen him to the floor. Women did not generally react to him as if he were Public Enemy Number One.
Although, admittedly, her plush mouth had difficulty forming a disapproving line, and the crystalline blue of her eyes resembled the cloudless sky more than ice. Interesting, but irrelevant.
She had no way of knowing who he was. How did he deserve that glare?
“Mavis Malcolm?” he inquired, asserting his authority with his tone.
He couldn’t tell if the tight line of her mouth curved in amusement or disapproval. Her lips appeared to be a dark rose color that clashed with her orange halter top. He was trying too hard to see what the top concealed
when the crystals over his head began to chatter. He shut the door on the rising breeze. His first mistake.
He was large and the space was small and cluttered, but that didn’t cause his impression of confinement. The knowing glare in Medusa’s eyes had him twitching like a prisoner—a sensation he was particularly unattached to.
Jax belatedly realized that he’d arrived in his paint-splattered camouflage and not his usual suit. The Stockton team training exercises resembled war zones.
“Hmmnn?” a disembodied voice asked from behind the counter.
“The Magician? It seems so,” Medusa replied. “Best warn the others.”
The voice had sounded human, and her reply indicated human, but logic prevailed. Jax towered over his diminutive nemesis to check behind the counter. A Siamese cat gracefully climbed from a basket on the floor, shooting him a disgruntled look as it slipped behind the curtains. “Talk to cats often?”
Closer inspection of his human target revealed orange short shorts and more curves than justified by her slight stature. When he looked up again, amusement tweaked her smile. He hadn’t expected the front for a psychic con game to be quite so. . . interesting.
He didn’t need interesting mucking with his mind.
Her eyes laughed. They weren’t crystal but blue flecked with silver and green. “I expected better of a Magician,” she said, nonsensically. “A little presto chango would be good. Let there be light would be asking a little much. But talking cats?”
Momentarily befuddled by her scent of ylang-ylang and multi-colored eyes, Jax had to rethink his plan to intimidate his opponent into handing over the child. He’d imagined someone older and savvier, not an obvious flake.
Before he could formulate a suitable action, the door flew open again. An equally diminutive—but much stouter—woman swept in, accompanied by a golden retriever. “I came as soon as I heard the Magician had arrived.” The cat followed her in, looking smug, and vanished behind the counter again.
Jax cocked his head to study the new arrival. The flowing red caftan and silver chignon pinned with astrological hairclips formed a stereotype of the charlatan he’d expected. Relieved that he didn’t have to terrorize the cat-eyed flake, he focused his attention on the newcomer. “Mavis?”
The charlatan narrowed her eyes and dramatically swung the flowing arms of her gown. “Begone, heathen, spread your enlightenment elsewhere,” she intoned, adding more prosaically, “You could start with the mayor.”
Behind him, the Medusa snorted but said nothing.
Unruffled, Jax regarded the new arrival. He disliked the deceptive asshole part of law work, but he could handle it—up until the time he throttled his prey. “I do not know any magician. I am Loretta Post’s guardian, and I have it on good authority that she is here or on her way here.”
“Post?” The older woman looked at him with incredulity. “Do you see a Rolls Royce out there that she could have arrived in? The only fancy car on the street is yours. I can’t imagine a wealthy Post would walk into town.”
“But they might arrive by bus, especially if they’re only ten,” he countered.
The woman muttered something that had the retriever growling. Jax had the greatest respect for animal teeth and no desire to harm a dog. He could, if he must, but now that he was out of the military, he preferred non-violent confrontation.
“I should have introduced myself. My apologies.” He reached for his jacket pocket and realized he was still in the sweat-soaked polo and camouflage pants he’d been wearing when he’d received the call about Loretta. He dug for his billfold instead. “I’m Jax Jackson of Stockton and Stockton out of Savannah.” He located a slightly mangled business card and handed it over.
“This says Damon Jackson.” The charlatan didn’t look mollified. “As in demon.”
“Named after my grandfather, which is why I prefer Jax.” He turned to give another card to the Medusa behind the counter—but she’d vanished.
Hadn’t he heard her snorting not five seconds ago?
Seeing the sway of the curtains behind the counter, Jax cursed. He’d been so focused on the woman he thought was the culprit, that Medusa had escaped—probably with his runaway ward. Propping his hands on the old-fashioned wooden counter, he vaulted over the top and raced through the storage room to the open door of the back exit.