Alayna Williams, author of Dark Oracle and Rogue Oracle (as well as Embers and Sparks, writing as Laura Bickle) stopped by the virtual offices to pen a quick post for us. Check out what she has to say about her favorite Tarot card.
Favorite Tarot Images: Strength by Alayna Williams
Strength is one of my favorite Tarot cards.
It’s actually a very subtle card, and one that I used to help profile Tara Sheridan, the heroine of ROGUE ORACLE. Tara is a criminal profiler who uses Tarot cards to solve crimes, and I’m sure that she would approve of the use of the Tarot as a story prompt.
When I think of Strength, I automatically think of big stuff. Burly guys. Large trucks. Weightlifters. Earth moving machinery. Car crushers. St. George slaying a dragon. Maybe Thor, brandishing a big shiny hammer. And that’s the immediate bias that many of us often have: thinking of Strength as a physical quality.
But in the Tarot deck, we see a woman with flowers in her hair, wearing a long white dress. She has a calm, peaceful expression on her face as she leans down to close the jaws of a lion with only her hands. This isn’t a bloody battle of swords and fists. She’s accomplishing her goal with a certain amount of tenderness, a gentleness that we can almost see in her face as she looks upon the lion. The lion seems to submit to her willingly, without a struggle, in the face of her compassion.
Traditionally, the card symbolizes fortitude and control over our own animal instincts, discipline to accomplish one’s goals. It’s interesting to me that Strength subdues her opponent without bloodshed. By her pose, we can’t tell if she’s been holding the lion’s jaws for moments or hours. She is determined to achieve her goal, and she approaches it from a deep wellspring of courage and faith in her own power.
I was accustomed to heroines who kicked down doors with guns blazing and asking questions later. But in creating Tara, I wanted her to be different. I wanted her to have the endurance to solve the cases she’s working, to be able to approach the lion in a thoughtful fashion. But I didn’t want her to face all of her problems with a gun. As I thought about this card, I wanted her to be powerful, and confident in her power. I throw many obstacles in her way: death, disaster, secrets, betrayal, and estranged love.
I decided to have Tara draw this card in ROGUE ORACLE, to identify with it. In her dreams, she became the figure walking across the desert with a lion at her side. She was able to tame the lion, to face the future and strategize about how she might conquer it. She fought monsters, saved the innocent, and rescued her lover from death.
And she did it with a softness about her that I admired, even in spite of myself. In the process of writing about Tara, I learned something: Strength doesn’t have to be harsh or brittle. Strength means rolling up sleeves and facing one’s fears, using one’s mind and heart as well as one’s hands.
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Synopsis for ROGUE ORACLE (Delphic Oracle #2)
Alayna Williams writes with power and poetry, combining old mythos with complete ass-kickery. You don’t want to miss this series.”
-National bestselling author Ann Aguirre
The more you know about the future, the more there may be to fear.
Tara Sheridan is the best criminal profiler around – and the most unconventional. Trained as a forensic psychologist, Tara also specializes in Tarot card reading. But she doesn’t need her divination skills to realize that the new assignment from her friend and sometime lover, Agent Harry Li, is a dangerous proposition in every way.
Former Cold War operatives, all linked to a top-secret operation tracking the disposal of nuclear weapons in Russia, are disappearing. There are no bodies, and no clues to their whereabouts. Harry suspects a conspiracy to sell arms to the highest bidder. The cards – and Tara’s increasingly ominous dreams – suggest something darker. Even as Tara sorts through her feelings for Harry and her fractured relationships with the mysterious order known as Delphi’s Daughters, a killer is growing more ruthless by the day. And a nightmare that began decades ago in Chernobyl will reach a terrifying endgame that not even Tara could have foreseen…
Excerpt from Rogue Oracle
He’d do anything to hear those voices again.
Galen’s head was too silent. The other voices in his head had drained away, leaving him alone. He pressed his cold hands over his ears so that he could hear his own blood and breath thundering, like the ocean in a shell. It was a bit less like being alone. He peered into the darkness, waiting. Waiting for the next voice to fill his thoughts and his dreams.
Through the pulse of his hands, he could hear the whir of an air conditioner and the creak of roof beams cooling overhead as sunlight drained from the day. The orange strip of light shining underneath the closet door thinned and faded. Galen brought his knees up against his chest, and a dress brushed against his cheek. The jasmine scent of his quarry’s perfume on his clothes mingled with the smell of shoe leather.
A car crunched in the driveway, followed by footfalls and the rattle of a key in the lock downstairs. Keys and purse jangled as they were cast on a hall table, and he heard the thunk of shoes being kicked off on the slate tiles of the entryway. The shuffle of mail sounded like a deck of playing cards.
Galen’s breath quickened, and he dug his fingertips into his close-cropped hairline. Not long. Not long, now.
Stocking feet padded into the kitchen. He heard the refrigerator door open, close. A microwave whirred, and a bell chimed. Galen’s nose wrinkled. Reheated rubber chicken from a trendy bistro, with tomato sauce. A television droned, comforting voices rising up through the floor. He leaned his head back against the wall of the closet. The television voices nattered on about Middle East peace talks, of a terrorism suspect captured, of the latest results from a television game show.
A fork clattered in the kitchen’s stainless-steel sink. The television turned off, plunging the house into false silence. Footsteps climbed the stairs to the second floor. Galen could hear the polyester zing of stockings on the plush carpet as his quarry walked past the closet. Light spilled under the closet door.
He held his breath.
The footsteps swished into the bathroom, opened the bathtub tap. Pipes creaked behind the closet wall. Galen smelled bath salts and citrus soap, heard the squeak of flesh against the bottom of the enameled tub. A shampoo bottle belched its last quantity of soap before it was tossed away into a trash can.
Elbows resting on his knees, Galen waited.
Like the rest of his quarry, he’d never met her. This one’s name was Lena. He’d only been led to her by the memories of others. Those memories burned bright in his mind for a few weeks and faded quickly, like a bruise. They left behind vacant space, space meant to occupy another. And another. His last victim, Carl, had remembered Lena. Through Carl’s eyes, Galen had seen Lena in all her fearless beauty: Lena, walking across Red Square with her lustrous dark hair covered by a scarf. Lena, dressed in a gown with a plunging neckline, her throat glittering with jewels…paste jewels that contained smuggled microchips in the settings. Lena, methodically taking apart a gun in a hotel room and wiping it clean of prints.
If he’d ever really bothered to admit it to himself, Lena had been the love of Carl’s life. Carl may not have seen it, but when Galen had taken possession of Carl’s memories, he could see it. Carl’s memories were twenty years old. But Galen wanted to see Lena, as Carl had. Though Carl’s voice had stopped ringing in Galen’s head, some of that feeling remained. Carl, the old spy, had carried a torch for Lena, right up until the time Galen had killed him.
The light under the closet door winked out. Galen heard Lena pull back the bedspread and climb into bed. He heard her punch the pillows and rearrange the covers. After a half-hour, all Galen could hear was the soft hiss of her breathing, moving in time his own breath echoing in his ears.
Galen nudged the closet door open. His muscles creaked as he unfolded his lanky frame. He caught his breath, certain that Lena could hear it. But the form stretched on its side in the bed didn’t move.
Galen approached the bed. Dim light from the street filtered through the curtains, illuminating Lena’s features. Age had softened her face, sketching lines that hadn’t existed in Carl’s memory. Her dark hair was streaked with silver, brushed over a shoulder that was rounder than Carl remembered. Her right hand curled loosely over the pillow, and a ring glittered behind a swollen joint. Galen recognized it: it was one that Carl had given her, many years ago.
Galen peeled back a corner of the covers and slipped into the bed behind Lena. His arms wrapped around her waist and mouth, ripping her nightgown. Lena awoke with a jerk, struggling against him. She howled and bit the hand around her mouth, drawing blood.
Galen could hear her. He could hear her swearing at him, screaming. The scream muffled as he wrapped his fingers around her throat and squeezed. He felt his fingers shattering the delicate hyoid bone in her throat, dig deeper, into her flesh. His own skin had grown porous and elastic, fingers reaching up into her jaw. Lena’s eyes rolled back in panic. She wheezed as Galen pressed his chest to her back. He could feel her warm flesh against his cold body, felt the cells in his skin growing plastic, reaching out. One of Lena’s white teeth glinted in his thumb. It disappeared as his hand lost its shape, flowed into her mouth. In his other hand, he could feel his fingers splitting apart Lena’s ribs, feeling the fluttering of her heart like a sparrow in a cage. His hand unfolded and fused with her heart, and he could feel his pulse pumping in time with hers.
Trapped in his embrace, Galen heard Lena whimper as she became part of him, melting into his flesh. He could feel her disintegrating, her skin losing surface tension as his body began its parasitic devouring of every bit of vessel and cell, like a snake digesting its prey. But this digestion was external: a slow dissolving of Lena’s body. Galen was conscious of Lena’s elbow somewhere near his lung, of her fingers wound around his ribs.
And he could hear her. The whisper of Lena’s memories suffused his head, like Carl’s had.
Whispers tumbled over each other, shards of memory cutting deep in his head where they intersected with Carl’s fading thoughts
He wouldn’t be alone…for as long as Lena’s voice lasted. Afterward, just as Carl’s memories led Galen to her, Lena’s secrets would lead him to others.
“The warden calls you a monster.”
Tara Sheridan stared over the edge of a manila file folder at the man in an orange jumpsuit, wrists chained to his waist with a belly chain. He stared at her with contempt over a scarred stainless steel table. As she paged through the psych reports conducted by other profilers, she was inclined to agree. Zahar Mouda was an accused terrorist. He’d been caught by campus police at a large Midwestern university, attempting to drag a drum of solvents out of the chemistry lab. He’d been unsuccessful in convincing the campus cops that he was dragging a keg to a frat house. Subsequent inquiries had shown a pattern of missing materiel that could be used to make bombs. Lots of them.
Zahar shrugged, the movement restricted by the rattle of the chain around his waist. For all the bravado of his words, he looked very young to Tara: thin, stringy build, large brown eyes framed by square-rimmed glasses. His file said he was twenty-two. She watched his fingers fidget with the chain around his waist, watched him chew his lip.
“Do you think I’m a monster?” he challenged.
“I don’t know. But the Bureau of Prisons would like me to find out.”
“What do you know about monsters?” Zahar snorted.
“Plenty,” Tara told him.
He stared at her, but his gaze faltered as it snagged on a white scar that crept up from the collar of Tara’s suit jacket, curling up around her neck to her jaw. Tara didn’t flinch, didn’t bother to hide it. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt Zahar to know that Tara had faced much greater monsters than he.
Tara leaned forward, pressing her elbows to the battered table, resting her chin in her hand. A wisp of chestnut hair from the chignon at the base of her neck pulled free, tickling the raised skin of the scar, and she ignored it. “What were you doing with those chemicals?”
Zahar rolled his eyes. “Look, I was just trying to make some money. It was just little stuff, at first. First, the guy asked for a departmental phone book, then a few sample slides, then…” He shook his head. “It was a few bucks, here and there. For dumb shit.”
Tara’s mouth thinned. This was how traitors were groomed. Small, inconsequential things snowballed into larger favors. Before long, the victim had given up too much and was indebted to his handler. There was no way out.
“You took the money. Why?”
“I’m trying to save up to bring my sister over here. She wants to study pharmacy.”
“Who offered you the money?”
“Some guy at the student union.”
“You got a name?” She regarded him with ink-blue eyes, measuring to see if he told the truth.
“Masozi. That’s what I told the cops.”
Tara tapped her pen on her notepad, keeping her face carefully neutral. The Federal Bureau of Prisons had asked her to form a profile on Zahar, to determine how dangerous he truly was.
“Ten thousand per shipment.”
“That’s more than enough money to get your sister over here.”
Zahar leaned back in his chair, and Tara could sense he was shutting down. She tried a different tactic: “Tell me about your sister.”
Zahar licked his lips, and his eyes darted away. Not a good sign…his body language indicated that he was buying time, fabricating. Or else, weighing what to tell Tara. When he spoke, though, his voice was soft. Almost vulnerable. “You don’t understand. I had to buy my sister back.”
Tara’s pen stilled. “Buy her back?” she echoed.
“She’s married. Third wife of a colleague of my father’s. He’s not really fond of her. Slaps her around.” Zahar looked away, and Tara watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “He agreed to allow her to apply for a visa, but wanted money. Fifty thousand in US dollars.”
“What about student loans?”
Zahar shook his head. “I’m on fellowship. My tuition’s waived, and I get a monthly stipend. Seven hundred fifty dollars, after taxes.” His mouth turned down, and he pushed his glasses up his nose with his shoulder. “And, let’s face it, nobody wants to see a male chemistry nerd do fifty thousand dollars’ worth of exotic dancing down at the strip club.”
Tara smothered a laugh. “Tell me about when you were children.”
Zahar didn’t miss a beat. “Asha’s three years younger than me. Takes after our mother. She did great in school. She got through her first year of college before she met my father’s business associate when she was home on break. The guy took an immediate shine to her.” His fists balled at his waist. “I wanted to kick his ass.”
“What was her favorite toy?”
“A doll my grandmother made for her. She named it Rahma.”
“Tell me about when you fought.” This was a trick question. All siblings fought. She wanted to gauge how honest Zahar was with her.
“Our worst fight was when we were little…she was probably seven. I found a bird egg in a tree and broke it over her head. She ran crying in to our mother, and we both got punished.”
“Did you feel bad about that?”
“About getting my sister in trouble? Not really.”
“No.” She paused. “About breaking the egg.”
He blinked quizzically at Tara. “I don’t know what you mean.”
A knock rang against the metal door behind Tara, and a guard’s voice filtered through: “Five minutes, Dr. Sheridan.”
“Thank you,” Tara called. She scribbled some notes on her notepad. The Bureau of Prisons had guaranteed her a secure room without observation cameras for her interview with Zahar. She was heartened to see that someone would bother to check in on them, eventually.
Zahar stared at Tara. “Well, what did you decide?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you decide whether or not I’m a monster?” His mouth twitched around the word.
“I haven’t made any decisions, yet.”
“But your opinion is one that matters.”
Tara’s mouth thinned. “Your psychological profile will make a great deal of difference in this investigation. But mine isn’t the only opinion you need to fear.”
“Will it make any difference in how I’m treated?” Zahar’s fingers knotted in the chain. “Am I going to get deported?”
“That’s not up to me.”
The door behind Tara swung open, and two federal prison guards crowded into the tiny room.
They unlocked the belly chain from the metal chair, and marched him back through the door. Zahar’s plastic inmate flip-flops slapped on the concrete floor.
One of the guards held the door open. “You coming, ma’am?”
“Can you give me fifteen more minutes?” Tara said. “I’d like to jot down my notes while they’re fresh.”
“See you in fifteen.” The door clanged shut, and Tara was left in the tiny room with the fluorescent light buzzing overhead.
She stacked the contents of her file back up neatly and placed them in the file folder. She shoved the folder aside, placed her purse on the table. She rooted around in the bottom of her purse for a pack of cigarettes. Tara didn’t smoke, but the cigarette pack attracted little notice on the metal detectors at the prison or in the quick manual search of her bags. Tara flipped off the lid of the pack and pulled out a deck of cards.
The back of the cards were decorated in an Art Nouveau pattern of stars on a background of midnight blue, edged in silver. These Tarot cards had been a gift to replace the deck her mother had given her, long ago. They’d been a peace offering, of sorts – Tara’s lover had given them to her, though he was uneasy with what they’d represented. Tara’s original deck had been destroyed. These still felt too crisp to her, the cardstock still stiff and shiny-new. She hadn’t quite yet bonded with this deck. Each deck had its own quirks, even a limited personality, and this one seemed determined to surprise Tara at each turn.
She moved to Zahar’s still-warm seat, wanting to occupy his physical space. She blew out her breath and shuffled the cards. The sharp cardstock cut her thumb as she shuffled, and she popped her thumb in her mouth as she wiped away a droplet from the edge of the deck.
“Tell me about Zahar,” she breathed at the cards, ignoring the paper cut. “Tell me about his heart, mind, and spirit.”
She pulled three cards and placed them, face-down, on the table. Tara’s fingers fogged the scratched stainless steel, and she turned the first one over.
The Fool, the first card in the deck, confronted her in a riot of clear watercolors. The ancestor of the joker in the modern playing card deck, the Fool depicted a young man skipping through a green field, toward the edge of a cliff. The Fool held a bundle over his shoulder, and gazed skyward at birds in a blue sky. The Fool, one of the Major Arcana cards, represented archetypes at play, suggested the broad strokes of destiny.
Tara steepled her fingers before her, brushing her lower lip. The Fool was a card of innocence and recklessness. It spoke of youth. Where Zahar was concerned, it might reflect the idea that Zahar had been carelessly going down the path of the traitor without watching where he was going. At heart, he might be more innocent than she’d thought.
She turned over the second card, the Seven of Cups. Cups were one of the four Minor Arcana suits, and represented choices and reactions to destiny. As a suit, cups represented emotions. In her three-card spread, this signified what had gone on in Zahar’s mind. The card depicted a man gazing at a pyramid of seven cups, from which fantastical creatures and images crawled: dragons, golden fish, a jewel-encrusted sword, a snake, a castle, and a veiled woman. This was a card of illusions. Zahar’s head was filled with lies, perhaps from his handler, perhaps from his sister’s husband. Zahar may have started out innocent, as the Fool, but he’d made a choice to be deceived.
The last card in the spread represented spirit. Tara was most eager to see what Zahar really was, deep down. She flipped over the Three of Wands, which depicted a man staring out over the sea at a ship, surrounded by three staves. The Minor Arcana suit of Wands represented fire, movement, and creation. But the Three of Wands was reversed, suggesting treachery and ulterior motives. Tara’s brow wrinkled. Zahar’s handler may have been lying to him, and Zahar might have even been lying to himself. But, with this card, she was also certain that Zahar was lying to her.
She blew out her breath. She cleared the three cards from the table, shuffled them back into the deck. She felt the whir of the stiff cards in her hands as she whispered to them: “What else do I need to know?”
Tara cut the deck three times and drew the first card from the top of the reshuffled deck. Her brow wrinkled as she turned it over.
The Lovers. The Major Arcana card depicted a man and a woman tangled in an embrace. It was difficult for her to tell where one ended and the other began. A voyeuristic angel watched over them from a cloud.
Stymied, Tara rested her head in her hand. She didn’t yet fully trust this new deck, and it seemed that this card had nothing whatsoever with Zahar’s situation. She tapped the image with her fingers, let her mind rove around the image. She didn’t like where free-associating led her: to her own personal life. To Harry. Harry had given her this deck, and it seemed to be intent upon reminding her of him.
Her fingertips crawled up her collar to the scars lacing her throat, remembering the feel of Harry’s kisses upon them. She hadn’t seen Harry for months. As an agent for the Special Projects Division of the Department of Justice, he’d been transferred a couple of times on various assignments, making a relationship difficult. Tara understood; years ago, she’d been an agent for Special Projects. Special Projects took, but rarely gave anything back.
Her fingers hesitated on her scars. Special Projects had taken much from her. Working for them, she’d fallen under the tender mercies of the Gardener, a serial killer who buried women in his greenhouses. She’d survived, barely, and called it quits. She only hoped that Harry wouldn’t be subjected to the same dangers.
The latch on the consultation room door ratcheted back, and the door opened. Tara scrambled to shovel her cards into her purse. Looking up with a scowl, she expected to see one of the guards.
“You’re back early–” she snapped, but her breath snagged in her throat.
Harry Li stood in the doorway, his hand on the knob. He was almost exactly as she’d remembered him from months ago: sharply-creased charcoal suit, polished shoes, black hair precisely parted. But there were circles beneath his almond eyes.
“Hi, Tara.” He let the door clang shut behind him.
“I…oh. I thought you were the guard.” She finished scooping the cards into her purse, but her heart hammered.
Harry inclined his chin at the disappearing cards. “Still reading?”
“Yeah.” She zipped her purse shut and folded her hands over her purse. “How did you find me?” she asked, but what she really wanted to ask was: Why here, and why now?
“When you said that you were getting back to work, I figured that you wouldn’t stray too far from your forensic psychology roots.”
Tara’s mouth turned down. “Just contract work. Some pro bono stuff for psychiatric hospitals. That kind of thing.” She’d dipped her toe back into work, gingerly. So far, it seemed to be going well, in those measured small doses. Her work with Zahar was filling in for a government psychologist away on maternity leave.
An awkward silence stretched.
Harry stuffed his hands in his pockets, jingled loose change. He did that when he was nervous. “I missed you.”
Tara glanced up at him. His face was open, tired, and she felt a jab of sympathy for him. Her fingers knotted in her purse strap. She was fighting the urge to stand up and kiss him. “I missed you, too.”
His eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he dropped into the other chair on the opposite side of the table. Exhaustion was palpable in the broken line of his shoulders. “Special Projects is killing me.”
Tara reached across the table for his hand. His fingers folded around hers, wound up so tightly that she couldn’t tell where hers ended and his began.
“I’ve been there,” she said, without irony.
“I know.” His mouth flattened. “That’s why I came to ask for your help.”
Tara’s hand froze. She had hoped that he’d come to see her. Not for work. “Oh.” She looked down at her fuzzy reflection in the table.
Harry reached across the table, crooked a finger under her chin. “Hey. That’s not what I mean. I wanted to see you, and –“
Tara withdrew her hand and pulled her chair back, drawing her professional mantle tightly about her. “Tell me about your case, Harry.”
Harry stared down at his empty hand, closed it. “A half-dozen Cold War-era intelligence operatives have disappeared. We’ve got evidence that specialized intelligence connected to them is being sold internationally, to the highest bidder. Most of it has to do with uranium stockpiles, leftover pieces of weapons from Soviet Russia. Tehran has been all over it.”
“That sounds like a military issue. Or an NSA problem.” Tara crossed her arms over her chest.
“You would think. But the disappearances are…unusual. These men and women have been vanishing without a trace. No bodies, no evidence of struggles.”
Tara shrugged. “Maybe they defected. Maybe they’re having a e having a beach party in Tehran.”
“Homeland Security hasn’t caught any of them trying to move outside the country. Some of them have literally walked off surveillance footage and were never seen again. It’s like the fucking Rapture – they leave their clothes, jewelry, even cell phones behind, and vanish. Of course, there’s also the fact that there are no beaches in Tehran.” He smirked, mouth turning up flirtatiously.
Tara lifted an eyebrow, intrigued. “What’s their connection to each other?”
“All of them were associated with something called Project Rogue Angel in the 1990’s. It involved cataloguing and tracking the disposal of nukes in the former USSR.”
“That sounds like a thankless job.”
“Wasn’t as successful as one might hope.” Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I think that somebody got to these people. I can’t prove it. But I need help in figuring out who’s behind the disappearances. You’re the best damn profiler Special Projects has ever seen, and we need you.”
Tara considered him. Harry wasn’t the type of man who would readily ask for help, and he’d done so in a clumsy way. She was reluctant to become involved with Special Projects again, to be their tool. But she owed him.
He looked at her, eyes red with too little sleep. “I need you.”
She reached forward, took his hand. She couldn’t say no.