Somewhat comforted, I slid into my chair and flipped through my mail. A couple bills. An invitation to a seminar on police procedure and the private eye, a reminder that my Jeep was due for servicing… nothing important. As I tossed them on the desk, the bell in my waiting room chimed.
Shaking off my growing depression, I glanced at the clock. My new client—potential client, rather—was right on time. I was totally unprepared for the wave of dizziness that slammed through me as I headed for the door dividing my office from the waiting room. What the hell? I blinked and tried to focus as I opened the door.
The man in the waiting room stood a good four inches taller than me. Trim in the waist, he was wearing a leather jacket adorned with studs, and I could tell that his shoulders were broad and his arms muscled. Golden hair grazed his collar. As I looked into those luminous topaz eyes, I knew what he was.
He held out one hand and tilted his head ever so slightly. "Zachary Lyonnesse at your service."
I caught my breath at the touch of his fingers on mine. The warmth of his body heat sent a crackle of cat magic racing up my arm, and a familiar scent told me everything I needed to know. Well, maybe not everything, but enough to start with. I straightened my shoulders and motioned him in.
"Delilah D'Artigo. So, Zachary Lyonnesse, perhaps you'd care to tell me what the hell you've been doing spying around my property?"
He leaned his head back and let out a short laugh. "I knew you'd finger me. I told Venus the Moon Child that you would, but he wasn't so sure." He dropped his voice as he said, "I'm glad that I didn't underestimate you."
Well, at least he'd admitted that it had been him. I cleared my throat. "So, are you going to answer my question, puma-boy?"
As I heard the challenge ringing in my voice, I knew I was in trouble. I circled him, instinct urging me to let loose and transform, to teach him whose territory he was in. Thank the gods I managed to retain enough control to know that a golden tabby was no match for a puma.
The light in Zachary's eyes flared, and the corner of his lip flickered into the tiniest smile. "Don't fluff your tail at me, girl. I'm not here to hurt you, and regardless of what you might think, I'm not a voyeur. You want to know why I was watching you? Because I want to hire you. But first, I had to get a feel for the situation. I'm not sure who to trust anymore, and right now, trust means everything."
I licked the tips of my fangs. His arrogance irritated me, but he was bigger and more dangerous than I, at least in Were-form. And I recognized hierarchy. "What do you want?"
Zachary let out a sigh, his shoulders dropping along with his cavalier attitude. "I'm from the Rainier Puma Pride. We need an investigator at our compound. Someone who can understand our special… situation. This is a delicate matter. We heard about you and your sisters through the Sub-Cult network. I know you're half-Fae, and a Were. It only made sense to ask another shifter for help." He pressed his hand to his forehead, squinting.
"You have a headache? Would you like some aspirin?" I wasn't about to let down my guard when it came to an unknown Supe, but he looked so worried that I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. "Why don't you sit down?" I reached for his arm and guided him to the chair opposite my desk.
That did it. The light faded from his eyes, replaced by a dark and shadowed look, and he slumped into the chair. "Someone is killing off members of our pride," he whispered.
Hell, no wonder the guy looked so upset. I moved to my desk, motioning for him to continue. "Tell me about it."
Zachary rubbed his chin, and it flashed through my mind that the five o'clock shadow he had going looked pretty good on him.
"We need to know who's killing our people. We've tried investigating on our own, but nothing… We're always too late, always a step behind. Five of our members have been murdered in the past few weeks, and I don't mind telling you, we're running scared."
"Have you gone to the police?" I asked but already knew the answer.
"This isn't a police matter. They have no idea how to handle affairs of this nature. The victims weren't killed by any human, that I can tell you." He stared at the floor and scuffed the carpet with the toe of his boot.
It occurred to me that Chase's Faerie-Human CSI Squad might be able to help out. I scribbled a memo on my notepad to ask him if he could do anything.
"Would you like some tea?" I asked. I kept a microwave on a table along with a variety of zap-and-eat noodle dishes, teas, hot cocoa, and other treats. I popped two mugs of water in the oven and nuked them for two minutes.
"Thanks," he said, struggling to cover up a sudden yawn. "I feel like I haven't slept in days, and I probably look it, too."
I flashed him a quick smile. "You look just fine," I said, dropping the tea bags in the mugs of steaming water. "Here, let this steep for a few minutes. The mint should help perk you up." Returning to my desk, I picked up my pen. I'd type up notes on my laptop later. "Tell me everything, and don't leave anything out, no matter how minute."
Zachary picked up his cup and held it to his nose, letting the steam rise to fill his lungs. He let out a long, slow breath and relaxed into the chair. "The first murder happened last month. Sheila didn't come home the morning after the full moon."
"Sheila?" I asked. "She have a last name?"
"No. I'll explain in a minute," he said. "At first we thought she'd just fallen asleep out in the woods, but by noon, we started to worry. We sent out a search party, and they found her next to a stream. She was still in puma form and very dead."
"That means she was killed before sunrise."
"Right." He leaned forward, his voice cracking. "Her blood had been drained and… everything was gone—inside. She was dry as a bone. But it also looked like her heart had been ripped out. We never did find it."
I winced. What could you say to a story like that? I'm sorry wasn't going to cut it. I opted for a question. "Do you have any idea who killed her? And how did you explain her disappearance to authorities?"
Zachary shrugged. "Not a clue. None of the victims had any real enemies. All were well-liked in our community. As for the police, some of our pride still live outside the confines of society. They keep to the compound while others—like me—have Social Security cards, get jobs, pay taxes. We finance the land and supplies. Those who choose not to pass in society contribute in other ways. Sheila had no birth certificate, no Social Security card. She's not listed in any computer anywhere, so who's going to miss her?" He rubbed his temples. "Except those of us who loved her."
I jotted down a few notes. This was far more serious than anything I'd run up against before. And it was the first time an Earthside Supe had approached me for help. "Give me the names of all the victims, please."
"Well, I told you about Sheila. Her parents came down from the mountains years ago and joined our clan. They're both still alive. Then there were Darrin and Anna Jackson, newlyweds. They vanished while they were camping."
"Camping? At this time of year?" I asked, glancing out the window that overlooked the back alley. The clouds shone silver, and the temperature was hovering around thirty-three degrees.
"Werepumas are strong. We're the Rainier Puma Pride." There was a sense of self-esteem in his voice that made me want to sit up and salute.
"We're used to cold weather," he continued. "So camping this time of year doesn't bother us. Anyway, we found their bodies near where we found Sheila's—near an old mining arrastra by Pinnacle Rock."
"What's an arrastra?" I wasn't familiar with the term.
"The prospectors used mills that were usually built in a stream to grind the ore down enough so they could pan it for gold. You'll see, if you come out to take a look around." Zachary looked like he could be a prospector himself; he was rugged enough. I found my mind wandering from the problem at hand to the muscle under his jacket. Just how buff was he, anyway?
Hastily reining in my thoughts—they were rapidly veering in a direction I wasn't prepared for—I asked, "So, were all of the bodies found near the stream?"
He nodded. "The creek flows alongside the hill. And Todd Veshkam disappeared while he was out cutting deadwood for kindling. Again, we found him near the arrastra. The bodies were all in the same condition: dry as a bone, hearts missing."
"Sheila, Darrin, Anna, Todd… you said there were five victims?" I paused, my pen poised above the notepad.
He closed his eyes. "Yes. The last was Hattie… Hattie Lyonnesse."
As he spoke, I felt the rush of anger in his voice. I jerked my head up and looked into his eyes. They glittered, dangerous and feral. "Lyonnesse? Isn't that your last name?"
Zachary nodded. "Hattie was my sister. And I want you to find the bastard who killed her so I can put an end to his miserable life."
"Your sister?" I set down my pen, feeling terrible. Instinctively, I leaned forward, reaching for his hand. "Oh, Zachary, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize—"
He stared at my outstretched palm for a moment, then lightly brushed my fingers with his. "Don't. Please don't. There's nothing you can say. She's gone, beyond our help. What you can do is find the son of a bitch who did this. Closure isn't all it's cracked up to be, but it's all my family can hope for."
Unsure of what to say, I cleared my throat. "What was she like? Hattie? Tell me about her."
He smiled then—just a glimmer—but enough to break through the dark shadows crowding his face. "Hattie was one of those women born to be a mother. You know the type? She didn't have kids of her own yet, but everybody who knew her knew that she'd settle down and raise a litter. Hattie lived with our mom. Father's dead. He was shot by some idiot on a full moon three years ago. The best we can figure is that the stupid ass got between Dad and a good meal and probably thought my father was coming after him. He shot him with three bullets. Dad managed to run into the bushes, where he hid until he died. No doubt the guy didn't look back, just ran off, probably thinking he escaped with his life."
"Who found your father?" I asked, staring at the desk. It seemed that life was harsh everywhere. I'd thought it bad back in OW, but here, even with more societal rules, the art of living was pretty damned rough.
"Hattie and I did, the next morning. He'd bled to death." Zachary let out a long sigh. "Anyway, Hattie stayed on with our mother after his death. She was dating one of the compound boys. Nathan Joliet's his name. Nate's never learned to pass, either, and I don't think he wants to. He takes care of repair work for a lot of the folks around the compound, and they give him food and supplies… whatever he needs."
"So she was engaged," I murmured.
"Yeah. Hattie never aspired to anything grand. She was content with a simple life. She was proud of who she was. A member of the Rainier Puma Pride. And she was dedicated to preserving bloodline and heritage." He stood and crossed to the window, staring down on the back alley. "She was due to get married next month, but then the murders started. Sheila was first, then Darrin and Anna. And then Todd."
"And then Hattie died, and you decided that whatever's happening can't go on any further." I doodled a circle on the paper, wondering if he'd be sitting in my office if the latest victim hadn't been a member of his family.
He turned, a wounded expression creasing his face. "Is that what you think? That I'm only here because of my sister? That doesn't say much for your opinion of me, does it?"
Feeling about two inches high, I shook my head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that." I had, but I wasn't going to admit it. A lot of selfish people had crossed my threshold, and it was easy enough to make a wrong assumption.
Zachary grimaced. "I didn't mean to jump down your throat. I'm just so tense the past few weeks. I know you didn't mean it that way. Anyway, the answer to your question is no. I wanted to come to you right after we found Anna and Darrin and realized that Sheila's murder wasn't an isolated incident. The elders overruled me. I took over my father's spot on the Council after he died, and while I have some input, they still consider me too young to take seriously."
Ah. The hierarchy again. Zachary was low cat on the totem pole, and he'd have to work his way up the ladder by claw and fang.
"When Todd died," he continued, "they began talking about bringing in somebody from the outside. And then Hattie went out for a walk one day and never came back. That's when the Council finally agreed that we need help. Somebody's murdering our people, and we have to find out who's doing it and stop them. It's too late for Hattie, damn it," he said, slamming his hand against the oak desktop, "but maybe it's not too late for the next victim."
I leaned back in my chair and swiveled, propping my feet on the edge of the windowsill. "You need someone with experience. What makes you think I'm the best choice? I have to tell you, I'm still a little green in the business."
Zachary gave me a soft, slow grin. "I think your business goes further back than you let on. I doubt that you spend all your time chasing wayward spouses. I've heard rumors that a skinwalker took a nose dive somewhere near your house. And demon scent was tracked to your door, but no demons ever came out again. I've been watching the three of you. You don't go as unnoticed as you think. Tell your sister Camille that her wards are working fine, though. Our shaman can't negate them."