In some ways, that could make finding the man easier. He continued his questioning. “What happened next?”
“I made sure my cousin was set up with everything she needed until a neighbor could check on her in a few hours, and I left. Then when I was a few streets over, all of the kids playing soccer on the streets started pointing behind me and shouting ‘Smoke!’ I turned, noticed it was coming from the direction of my cousin’s house, and rushed back. As I turned the last corner, I saw the man with the scarred neck standing in the crowd of onlookers, watching the fire consume my cousin’s house.” He paused a second before he managed, “I was too late to save her.”
Marco had already known that the man’s cousin, Ana Vasquez, hadn’t survived. Luckily, the old man sitting in the kitchen seemed to be keeping his emotions under control, so he continued. “Has anyone you know in Pisté ever seen the man with the scarred neck before?” The old man shook his head. “Was there any reason someone would go after your cousin?”
The old man looked off to the side. “No. Everyone in the village loved her. Until she got really sick, she used to make extra meals every Wednesday to share with her more elderly neighbors.” He turned his head and met Marco’s gaze. “Even though the police dismissed the fire as an accident, my family told me to tell you about Ana, but I’m not sure why. Do you know something that I don’t?”
Ana Vasquez’s deceased husband had worked at an AMT compound in the 1960s and 1970s. As the rules and operations of day-to-day life inside the AMTs had begun to change in the 1980s, Ana’s husband had quit and severed ties, unable to handle the harsher style. After Ana’s husband had died a few years ago, a member of DEFEND had approached her for information. Hoping to make up for the small part her husband had played in harming first-borns, she’d agreed.
Some might think that she’d been targeted because of working with DEFEND, but the files he’d received from Jaxton had spelled a different story.
Marco took a step toward the old man in the kitchen and said, “I do some private investigating on the side. And a friend of your cousin asked me to help, so here I am.”
He was a good liar, but even so, he let out his breath when the old man finally said, “You don’t think it’s an accident.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you think the man with the scarred neck did it?”
“It’s too early to tell, but I won’t rule him out.” He straightened and held out his card. “But rest assured that I plan to find the arsonist. Let me know if you think of anything else.”
The man took his card containing non-traceable contact information before shaking Marco’s hand. “Thanks for your time.” Marco nodded before showing himself out.
First in Cancun, and now Pistè. This was the second time a witness had described the same blond man with a scar across his neck, visiting a place right before a fire had been sighted. Both fires had also ended with fatalities.
But what stuck out most to him was the mention of the blond man’s scarred neck. The mark was distinctive, which was definitely a liability to a serial arsonist. Could it be that he wasn’t setting the fires, but merely trying to warn the targets before the fires hit?
Regardless, Jaxton’s hypothesis seemed to be holding true. Inside the dossier he’d received, Marco had read about other similar incidents from around the world. All of them had targeted Feiru with some sort of connection to the AMT system. And despite the fatalities, all of them had been dismissed as accidents by the authorities.
Similar tactics had been employed a number of years ago by a Feiru fringe group trying to bring down the Asylums for Magical Threats’ system called the Federation League. If the past was anything to go on, the Federation League was trying to climb its way back into the limelight, uncaring if innocent humans or Feiru were killed in the process.
He would quietly alert some of his fellow DEFEND members in southern Mexico to keep an eye out for the man with a scarred throat. Secretly, he hoped to be the one to find him.
However, he couldn’t do that until he made sure Cam and her team got in and out of Chichen Itza without incident, which included finding out more about the shadow-shifter he’d tangled with in Merida.
He’d waited years for more exciting missions, but seriously, when it rained, it fucking poured.
Five year-old Millie Ward ran after her two older brothers, her little legs unable to keep up. Sometimes she hated being so much younger. “Jax! Gary! Wait for me. I want to see the fishies too.”
Garrett, her eldest brother, paused, but Jaxton tugged on his arm. “We can’t use the boat if she comes. Leave her.”
Millie tried to move her short little legs faster, but she stumbled and let out a shout, sliding on her hands and knees across the grass, her skin scraping against the rocks. The scrapes hurt so much. She couldn’t hold back her tears and her nose started running. Then she felt a hand on her cheek and she looked up to see Garrett. He crouched down, pulled her into a hug, and said, “Your crying will scare away the fish.”
She leaned back and sniffled. “I can go with you?”
A tissue appeared in front of her face and Jaxton said, “If you stay quiet and listen to everything we say.”
Garrett gave her a serious look, but then smiled. “And no wandering without us. Adventure is something to share.”
Millie nodded, wiping her tears with the tissue. “I promise.”
Garrett stood, pulled her up by her hand, and said, “Then let’s go.”
The three of them reached the lake, and as her brothers set up their fishing poles, Millie crawled on top of a big rock next to the water and looked down. A baby fish swam by and she touched the surface. The fish darted away, but she saw another and reached for that one. She stretched her arm to the water underneath the rock, but she lost her balance and fell into the lake. The water was like ice, and she couldn’t swim. She sank further down, and panic caused her to take a breath, but instead of air, she breathed in freezing water. Unable to breathe, she tried to scream.
Millie jolted awake, but as she drew in deep gulps of air and not water, she realized that she’d been dreaming about her childhood vacation to the Lake District. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d dreamed of that particular near-death experience. Over the years, she’d had too many of them.