New Orleans… French Quarter
Sasha stooped down and kept her fingers just above the ashes at her feet. Still warm. The acrid scent of burned Phoenix flesh stung her nose as she surveyed the charred remains.
This was so not how she wanted to return to New Orleans, but she’d do anything to help Sir Rodney the way he’d helped their Wolf clans. And as tragic as it was, what had happened in Ethan’s wine cellar gave her a cover for the nervous energy she’d been feeling ever since the invitation came. Shogun would also be here for the annual Mid-Summer’s Ball, and her jumpiness wasn’t appreciated by Hunter. It had taken everything within her to hide her excitement, as well as the guilt that went along with it. However, this new situation made all that go away.
Without her having to evade his razor senses, Hunter now assumed her previous nervousness had to do with somehow picking up on what lay at her feet. That sucked, on a variety of levels.
A twinge of guilt twisted in her side as Sasha looked up at Ethan McGregor. “Who found the body?”
“Sir Rodney and his best man,” Ethan McGregor said quietly.
“We’re going to need to talk to them more thoroughly,” Hunter said in a low rumble. “Where is Sir Rodney?”
“In my office… after he witnessed this, we necessarily removed our monarch from this… this awful sight. He is up there with his bodyguard.”
Sasha gave Hunter a glance. “Did she say anything about why she was down here? Is there anyone you know of who might have wanted to hurt her?”
The establishment owner shook his head and let out a weary sigh. “I don’t know why she came down here, but I do know that she wouldn’t hurt a fly and everyone loved Desi. She was well liked by everyone here at The Fair Lady. Everyone. Desi had been working for me for over ten years… I’ve never seen anyone who got on so well with others. That was Desi. She and Penelope, my other Phoenix dancer, came to town together and are from the same rookery. They were like sisters. I don’t even know how to begin to tell Penelope.”
Sasha listened as she stared at the body, going over each detail of the intact ash, and then an eerie symbol on the victim’s body drew her attention. Was it a tattoo or some other strange marking on Desidera’s belly that, for some reason, didn’t burn?
Moving carefully as to not disturb the ashes, Sasha pulled out a small notepad from the back pocket of her jeans and extracted the small pen that had been wedged in the spiral at the top if it. She sketched the symbol quickly and then placed her hand inches above the symbol, trying to feel any vibrations that might have been coming off of it. But just as suddenly as she’d reached out to cover it, the symbol collapsed in on itself, making her jerk back her palm.
“Where’s Penelope?” Sasha said, glancing up at Ethan.
“Every other night she works at the Tea House. It closed at ten.”
“So she’s probably home in bed,” Sasha said, now glancing at Hunter. She returned her gaze to Ethan. “So nobody called her yet to tell her what happened?”
“No. I wanted to wait until you had a chance to…” Ethan motioned to where Desidera’s body lay on the floor and then brought his fist to his mouth for a moment. “I wanted to see if there was anything I could tell Penelope that would make sense of this.”
“You’re sure no one else went by there to speak to her? They were co-workers,” Hunter said flatly, crossing his arms over his stone-cut chest. “You said Desidera was well-liked, others would know Penelope would be—”
“No. We’re the only ones, save the king and his best man, that know. We didn’t want to start a panic… rumors would fly, and if there is a killer in our midst, we need him to be comfortable, not go into hiding.” Ethan said quickly, “I’ve been sworn by oath before the king not to divulge any of this to a soul… as it could hamper the investigation. But eventually it will leak out. I must tell Penelope, as well as the rest of the staff here, and Sir Rodney understands the need for this.”
“All right,” Sasha said. “I understand, but I’d like to talk to Penelope first thing in the morning, if not tonight.”
“Of course,” Ethan said, nodding.
Sasha let out a hard breath and stood, stretching her cramping legs and back. “Then, was she dating anyone? Any current or ex boyfriends?”
“No… not really,” Ethan replied carefully. “She hadn’t been dating anyone for some time… However, she and Sir Rodney, sometimes, got together.”
Again, Sasha shared a glance with Hunter. That was the last thing she’d expected Ethan to tell her. But now it made sense why the Seelie monarch was so upset.
“Was it serious?” Sasha asked, pushing for details.
“Oh, no,” Ethan said quickly, seeming more uncomfortable by the moment. “Desidera knew that she was one of many that he cared for. She was very sophisticated about the whole thing, which is probably why Sir Rodney liked her so much.”
“So they were hooking up tonight,” Hunter said in a deadpan tone.
Ethan shrugged. “I would have to assume so.” Ethan’s gaze held Sasha’s for a moment and then went to Hunter’s before seeking a far off point in the small, dank cellar. “It is my understanding that they were to meet at her apartment after her show. That was all Sir Rodney said on the matter.”
“Okay, then… like I said, we’re gonna need a list of people she might have talked to—a friend, co-worker, anyone she could have confided in.” Sasha looked at Ethan, studying him hard and guessing that Desidera’s boss, who she worked with daily, would probably know more than the kingly lover who only visited her for trysts.
“Penelope would be the best start,” Ethan said quickly, blotting the tears from his face. “Our Phoenixes are rare, and she and Penelope are from the same rookery, like I told you. If there was any girl-talk or shared secrets, Penelope would have been her most-likely confidant.”
“Thanks, Ethan,” Sasha said absently, returning her gaze to the ashes.
If she didn’t catch Penelope at home, she was going to have to go hunt her down at the tea house and the last place she ever wanted to revisit was the tea house… the place where an indiscretion had happened that almost made two alpha wolves go to war over her. Two brothers. It didn’t matter that meddling garden faeries and outraged pixies had been the culprits; the event was still a sore spot—one that neither she nor Hunter ever discussed. Damn, this was so not how she’d envisioned returning to New Orleans with Hunter for Sir Rodney’s annual Fae Midsummer Night’s Ball. In her mind’s eye she’d envisioned having the time of her life for her twenty-fifth birthday, a milestone that Doc had assured the General would pass without incident.
She caught Hunter’s expression from a sidelong glance, but said nothing. The muscle in his jaw pulsed a steady beat. He’d obviously come to the same conclusion about the possibility of having to go to the tea house. Okay… so investigating at the tea house was going to be fun. Sasha let out a soft sigh.
“I trust that you understand the delicate nature of this investigation,” Ethan said, clasping his hands behind his back, his gaze sweeping between Sasha and Hunter. “I have spoken at length to Sir Rodney, as I am sure you will… and he’ll tell you that this situation must be handled with the utmost discretion… news of this event, just before the ball, could cause undue panic, rumors… It is not a shallow matter of a social event coming before the death of a beautiful young woman—the death of anyone would be and is considered tragic, but...”
“But this has to be handled diplomatically,” Hunter said, finishing Ethan’s statement. “As clan leaders, we understand. Some things are not meant for public consumption until all the facts can be coherently presented.”
Hunter gave Sasha the eye, which she immediately read as his unspoken reference to the tea house incident.
“Precisely,” Ethan said, oblivious to the couple’s undercurrent, and then closed his eyes, releasing a long breath and turning away from the charred body at Sasha’s feet. “Thank you.”
Quiet surrounded them, and in those few awkward moments, Sasha’s thoughts strayed, wishing that just once there’d be no drama… that New Orleans would be a vacation destination, instead of a hotbed of paranormal intrigue. That was such an awesome fantasy. A grand fete, a sexy escort—Hunter, an enchanted village, her best friends… what was not to love? It would have been perfect. But Sir Rodney was a friend. A dear friend. And if something happened to someone close to him, in Ethan’s bar—another dear friend, then it was like somebody messing with her family.
And, yeah, she knew the brass would want to monitor her, so between her and Doc’s fabrications and assurances that “going live” in a known paranormal zone was the best test that she wouldn’t flip out and turn into a demon-infected werewolf, it had still taken every theatrical ploy she’d owned to get them to allow her and her team to return to the Big Easy so soon. Now this?
“She was such a dear-heart,” Ethan said softly, walking away to catch his weight against the wall. “How could something like this happen in The Fair Lady?”
“We’ll solve this,” Sasha said, trying to offer some comfort. “You keep your head, man, all right?”
Ethan nodded, but the gesture was unsure.
All of this had to be smoothed out and kept below the military radar, while they were probably doing everything in their power to track her.
“You’re sure your human superiors will remain uninvolved?” Ethan asked, his question loaded with concern.
“Yeah,” Sasha replied, holding his gaze for a moment. No one in the room, except her, had to deal with the human population; she was the only one straddling the fence by dealing with the brass and having a human team of paranormal investigators—which had remained a sore point between her and Hunter from the beginning. “I have it under control,” she finally muttered, giving Hunter a quick, sharp glance.
Okay, she admitted it; to make everything work out she’d stretched the truth back at the base—then had to throw the brass a bone. Said there was still some suspicious activity in the area that she and her squad needed to reconnaissance on. She’d told that whopper well before Sir Rodney had sent a self-destructing Fae missive that he needed help with a delicate job. So, maybe it was a good thing after all, or even a little precognition that she’d told the brass back at the base that New Orleans was a way station for black market supernatural activities. That was no news flash.
But it had put her in the right place at the right time to be here just before the ball, and just before this tragedy. Maybe she and Hunter could get this problem addressed before her human crew or any of Hunter’s men arrived. That was the hopeful thought.
Sasha rubbed the tension from her neck as she tried to glean clues from the site. Since war had already broken out on the streets in the paranormal community, she’d been able to convince her superior officers that it was advisable to keep a Paranormal Containment Unit peacekeeping presence here… just in case. Especially around Mid-Summer events. All that was true, just slightly over-exaggerated, so she thought.
Sheesh. Liar, liar pants on fire—now the B.S. she’d trumped up to get her and her team a little R&R had come to pass.
Sasha let out a quiet sigh heavily weighted with frustration. Who knew that Sir Rodney’s invitation to an over-the-top Fae bash was going to turn out to really be a work detail, a possible murder investigation at that? Clarissa and the guys were gonna have a cow. Hunter was already snarling. For that matter, so was she. Not because of doing a favor for Sir Rodney, he was a doll—but because someone had dared hurt a friend of her friends. It was like going against the pack; whoever did this would pay. Both she and Hunter were so pissed, the hair was standing up on the backs of their necks. She could only hope that was why they were quietly snipping at each other. But right now, none of that mattered. She had to focus.
The only saving grace was the fact that the poor girl had torched in her Phoenix form rather than her human form—which only made it a little less horrible. However, had it been the other way around, she might not have been able to look at the remains with investigative dispassion.
“I don’t understand,” Ethan finally said beginning to pace. It was clear that the quiet tension was closing in on him and he needed the chatter for comfort, even though she and Hunter needed the quiet to think in order to piece together sketchy clues.
Ethan balled his small chubby fists at his sides while walking to and fro. “She never came back from the flames. The poor girl… it was awful!” He heaved in a shuddering sob and pressed a fist to his plump mouth. “She was so pretty… a red-headed beauty, that she was. My best waitress, a fantastic show girl, my good friend—I just don’t understand.”
For a moment, Sasha couldn’t reply. Ethan was so upset that his Fae glamour was fading right before her. The tips of his ears were becoming more pointed and less human and his eyes had lost their warm brown hue, giving way to the multicolored Elfin irises she’d always found so fascinating. Even his frame was changing to the slighter Elf build, causing his pants and shirt to begin to sag.
“She was a lovely young woman, no one disliked her. Not even the Vampires found fault with her,” Ethan said with a thick swallow.
Sasha glanced up at Ethan, the word Vampires sticking in her mind and her craw. Hunter caught it too, but said nothing. She moved toward Ethan with her sketch pad. Maybe he’d be able to tell her about any tattoos or strange body markings.
“Sasha,” Hunter called out from deeper in the cellar. “I’ve got something.”
Hustling over to where Hunter stood, Sasha crouched down and sniffed. It was feral and female, but nothing like she’d ever smelled before. “What is that?” she asked frowning. “It smells like Were but not any kind of Wolf, Shadow, or Demon.” She shook her head. “I’ve never smelled this kind of Were before.”
Hunter’s eyes narrowed. “Neither have I.” Hunter scented the air again. “And there’s something more down here. Blood.”
Sasha watched intently as Hunter cocked his head, seeming to listen to the sudden stillness as though he could hear the past. It was always an amazing thing to witness, seeing his wolf senses keen, seeing Hunter’s primal instincts ignite to scour the environment for clues. The Native American warrior battled with the Shadow Wolf Clan warrior just under the surface of Hunter’s skin. It was sexy as hell, that pivotal moment when his internal tracker flipped on with a subtle snap.
Sasha kept her eyes on Hunter, following where his line of vision spent itself around the tavern wine cellar. Six-foot-five inches of pure muscle packaged in a two-hundred and twenty pound ebony-hued, human frame was ready to slip into a shadow and emerge pure wolf. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and ever so slightly his dark ponytail lengthened.
“What’s going on, Sasha?” Ethan said nervously, starting to come closer.
But Sasha held up her hand. “Just give us a moment, Ethan… keep your scent back and let Hunter work.”
After a moment, Hunter returned to her side. “There’s blood down here, but every time I think I’m closing in on it, the scent just dances away.”
“Does it belong to Desidera or to the Were we’re smelling?” Sasha replied with a frown.
Hunter shrugged, now seeming edgy. “I don’t know. I can’t get a lock on the scent in order to tell.”
Sasha rubbed the nape of her neck. They had a dead Phoenix, some type of female Were scent, and blood that may or may not belong to either one. Sasha turned and looked at the body again. It was possible that Desidera was attacked by a Were and rather than going out by teeth, she decided to go out by flames. But that didn’t explain the symbol she’d found on the body or the lack of signs of a struggle. If a Were had come down here to attack, then there should have been scuff marks on the floor, things turned over. But the scene looked like Desidera simply laid down quietly on the floor and calmly turned to ash. She’d think suicide if all the other pieces weren’t getting in the way—namely, no note, an agreement to meet a lover after work, a feral female Were scent, and the elusive scent of blood far away from the body, even though there were no signs of struggle. Personally, she was leaning toward murder, although why wasn’t making any sense and who was completely unknown at this point.
Walking back over to Ethan, Sasha spoke in a gentle but firm tone. “Ethan, are there any Weres in the area that aren’t Wolves?”
Ethan’s gaze shot between Sasha and Hunter. “Why? What did you see down here?” When they didn’t answer, he mopped his damp brow with the back of his forearm. “Only the Serpentines and Reptilians,” he said quickly. “The Serpentines are primarily over at the Blood Oasis… those with alligator abilities stay deep within the swamplands.”
Hunter shook his head. “It wasn’t reptile. What I picked up on was mammal—warm-blooded.”
Ethan slumped with relief so fast that Sasha almost reached out to catch him, but Ethan caught his weight on the banister instead.
“You okay?” she asked, now holding him beneath his elbow. It wasn’t necessary, but her touch conveyed comfort to her distraught friend. She waited for Ethan to nod and then tried another line of questioning, just to be sure to rule out all possibilities. “Do Phoenixes ever have a type of contagion that makes it hard for them to transition from one form to the next?” Sasha briefly looked at Hunter, remembering all too well how that had happened to him.
“Not that I know of,” Ethan said in a solemn voice, staring at the ashes across the room. He shook his head and briefly closed his eyes. “She was such a nice person, truly a gem. This shouldn’t have happened to her.”
“No, you’re right. Something like this shouldn’t happen to anyone,” Sasha said quietly, looking at Ethan’s stricken expression.
Ethan ran a trembling palm over his partially balding scalp. His shoulders slumped; fatigue and grief making his stout little frame seem to be that of a bewildered child. He looked from Sasha to Hunter, his gaze begging for answers.
Hunter raked his fingers through his hair and stared at the grisly remains. “And you’re sure Desidera didn’t have any run-ins with anyone, especially a Were, for example?”
Ethan stared up at him, looking confused. “I guess anything is possible, but I honestly never heard about anything so serious that someone would want to kill her over it. And when it’s all said and done, the supernatural community in New Orleans is a small one compared to the humans. Most likely we would have heard about such bad blood between a Phoenix and a Were. Why are you asking?”
“We picked up a feral Were scent,” Sasha said as calmly as possible. “Possibly female.”
The color drained from Ethan’s face. “I don’t know why you would smell a Were down here.”
“Did she have a changing room or an employee locker?” Sasha rubbed her temples. There had to be more to this than a dead Phoenix.
“Yes. Certainly,” Ethan said in a tense clipped voice. “This way.”
Ethan moved up the steps as though someone were chasing him. Sasha and Hunter loped behind him taking the narrow cellar stairs two at a time. But once they all exited, Ethan locked the door and tried to appear calm before his kitchen staff as he showed Sasha and Hunter to the Employees Only section of the establishment.
“I have a changing room for them in here,” Ethan said in a private murmur to keep others from hearing, and sounding more and more distraught as he spoke. “It’s all pink and white tiles; pretty with mirrors and vanity lights and marble benches with a private shower, so my girls can fully transform in comfort. That’s why Sir Rodney and I called you. Something just isn’t right about this. My Phoenixes have never had a problem like this… and I didn’t want to alert the others for fear of starting a panic in the Fae community just before all the galas. You now bring up the possibility that it could be some virus… I pray what she had isn’t contagious. My own wife, Margaret, isn’t sure—and she’s an empath… a healer and she cannot make heads or tails of this.”
“No, no, no—I just had to ask that question,” Sasha said, holding him by both arms.
She waited until he calmed and then they entered the changing room. Now she wasn’t sure which was worse—murder or contagion? Guilt threaded its way around Sasha’s conscience and choked it. This was indeed a person, someone who was loved and cared for by others in the Supernatural community. The last thing she should have been thinking of was a silly party or her birthday, or any issues between her and Hunter… it was just that work was always the focus and she’d been hoping for a break in the action for only a little while. Then again, she reasoned, she was blessed. At least she wasn’t charred ash, which certainly could have been the case when dealing with pissed off vampires.
But that was then and this was now, besides, this girl didn’t have any direct enemies, a crazy boyfriend, or any of the makings of domestic troubles. A brief prayer crossed Sasha’s mind: Please God, don’t let it be some serial killer whack job, though.
Looking up at Ethan and then glancing at Hunter, she made sure her voice was gentle. “I guess I was just trying to rule out anything medical before we started down that path,” Sasha offered, hoping that it really was something benign that didn’t involve foul play.
Ethan nodded and released a sad sigh. “Here’s her locker.” He motioned toward it and then shrugged. “But I don’t have a key or the combination.”
Hunter reached out and yanked the door off. “No problem.”
“All right,” Ethan stammered. “Then… I should go to my office to report what we’ve learned thus far to Sir Rodney. Once you look through, please come up. I know he’s pacing the floors in need of answers.”
“We won’t be long,” Sasha said, beginning to go through Desidera’s personal effects. She glanced at Hunter. “And we’ll try to put the door back so the other employees don’t immediately see a busted locker.”
“Thank you,” Ethan said quickly and then slipped out of the door.
Hunter moved in close behind Sasha, his presence like a warm, stone wall of silence behind her.
“You’re crowding me,” she said with an arched eyebrow, glancing at him over her shoulder.
“Just trying to pick up a scent,” he muttered and then backed off.
“Mostly pretty standard stuff,” she called out, looking at a lightweight pink sweater, an extra pair of flat shoes, jeans, a tank top, and a purse. “She had a change of clothes in here… make up.” Sasha let out a hard breath and began going through Desidera’s purse.
Holding up her driver’s license, the photo of a stunning woman stared back at her. No wonder Sir Rodney was so taken. Tissues, lipstick, a compact… nothing was out of the ordinary. But there was a roll of smaller bills held in a rubber band—no doubt dancer’s tip money. The contents of her wallet were also fairly standard: credit cards, several twenty dollar bills. Then a small carnival strip photo fell into her hands. It had been held between two credit cards and showed two smiling girlfriends laughing and hugging each other. One red head, one blond.
“This must be Penelope,” Sasha said, handing the photo strip to Hunter.
He took it, glanced at it, and handed it back to Sasha. “Looks fairly recent, judging from the same hair style in the driver’s license.”
Sasha nodded. “Good call.” But then in a small slit inside the well-worn leather, her fingers hit pay dirt. “A Blood Oasis member card?” She handed off the card to Hunter, who raised a brow as he accepted it. “What’s she doing with one of these?”
“My question, exactly. Vampires do not hand these out on the street. This is a donor card, not a member card.” Hunter handed Sasha back the card, which she stashed in her jeans pocket.
“Looks like we’re going to have to stop by the Blood Oasis,” she said, staring at him.
“Can’t wait,” Hunter muttered sarcastically.
A sudden presence made them both turn quickly. Upper and lower canines had ripped through Hunter’s gums. Sir Rodney’s bodyguard held up both hands in front of his chest, which eased the pair of wolves.
“Milord had been called back to Sidhe, and he would like a word with you in Ethan’s office before he leaves.” The body guard glanced at Sasha’s shoulder holster and weapon and then at Hunter’s slowly retracting canines. “Tensions are high… but know that our monarch is also extremely upset. To see a display of aggression—”
“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” Sasha said as Hunter rolled his shoulders. “We’re just a little jumpy after what we’ve seen in the basement.”
The guard glanced at the broken locker door and then turned without comment. “This way, please.”
The threesome headed down the back room corridors, meeting Ethan along the way.
“I’ve tried to call Penelope,” Ethan said, catching up to their pace, “but she didn’t answer. I know it sounds silly, but if you’re going to ask her questions tonight, will you call me? I wanted her to hear it all from me first, but I have to close down the bar and Mike left his shift early.” Ethan let out an exasperated breath. “Having employees is sometimes like having children. My bartender is known for taking off before his shift ends, and he did it again. I need to deal with him, and I don’t want anyone else closing for me tonight, given the circumstances.”
“We’ll call you, for sure,” Sasha said. “But you make sure you have someone you can trust stay in here with you while you close. Promise me that.”
Ethan nodded as the king’s best man turned and also nodded. “Milord has sent for Fae archers to reinforce me. I will be fine. Just check on Penelope… and let her know I wasn’t being callous to have strangers contact her before I’d had a chance. Make her know—”
“Ethan…” Sasha said, stopping before his office door and hugging him. “We’ve got your back. We’ll explain to her that you by rights couldn’t leave here and she was unreachable by telephone. Just make sure you give us her address before we leave.”
Ethan’s body relaxed against hers and they parted after a moment. “Thank you, Sasha. Thank you both,” Ethan said with a sniff and then walked down the hall in the opposite direction.
The guard opened the door and stood aside, before entering behind Sash and Hunter and closing it behind them. They found Sir Rodney pacing with his hands behind his back. Sir Rodney walked a hot path between Ethan’s desk and the bank of file cabinets against the far wall, dragging his fingers through his thicket of dark brown tresses. His handsome face was near ashen with grief, but his jewel blue eyes glittered with unspent rage. “I want whoever attacked this girl found and dismembered,” he said in a low, threatening tone.
“Not a problem,” Hunter replied, anger beginning to make his wolf canines crest. “It is the way of the wolf—however we must be sure of whom the assailant was, beyond all doubt, before we act in such resolute terms.”
“Thank you,” Sir Rodney said, rage glittering in his eyes. “Then I appreciate your allegiance on such short notice.”
“We are one,” Hunter said, offering the monarch an old world handshake, by clasping each other’s forearms.
Sasha nodded. “Did she say anything about why she was down there in the wine cellar? Is there anything you can tell us that might shed light on the tragedy?”
Sir Rodney’s gaze held Sasha’s for a moment and then went to Hunter’s before seeking a far off point in the office. “No. I was to meet her at her apartment. That was all she said.”
Brief silence created a new level of tension in the room as Sir Rodney leaned an outstretched arm against the file cabinet. He allowed his head to drop forward and he spoke to Sasha and Hunter with his eyes closed. “I cared for her,” Sir Rodney finally said in a gravelly tone. “Many of us did. Find her killer… this wasn’t an accident. We need a neutral party—someone who can look into a Phoenix death without the Fae being directly involved… or it could cause diplomatic complications and raise questions we are not prepared to answer at present.”
“We’ll do our best.” Sasha held the distressed monarch’s gaze and then she looked away. It was time to get out of here. But she had to show Sir Rodney what she found. Extracting the card from her wallet, she held it out to him. “She was a blood donor for the Vampires… were you aware of that?”
Sir Rodney straightened and snatched the card from Sasha and then flung it down on Ethan’s desk. “I knew she’d danced for them once or twice, but I d’not know she was a damned donor.”
Sasha glanced at Hunter. Sir Rodney’s Fae brogue had become thick, his rage allowing his dialect to surface as swiftly as the color that had risen to his face.
“In that case,” Hunter said evenly, “we’ll approach the death as highly suspicious.”
“It is highly suspicious,” Sir Rodney said flatly. “The timing of this, just as I was to collect her after her work shift and the way she approached me in the bar… no, this wasn’t some Phoenix transition gone wrong.” He looked at Sasha and Hunter. “You can rule out some crazy concept of contagion. Ethan told me the theories. And whot of this Were scent you picked up?”
Sir Rodney’s voice had escalated on every word. Sasha gave Hunter a look to allow her to speak in a more calming female voice to the upset monarch. Hunter inclined his head slightly, agreeing without words.
“It was female and feral, but none like we’ve ever encountered in this region. That’s two potential leads… the only clan of local Weres we know of that had any feral females was the old Buchannan clan. This card,” she said, walking over to the desk to pick it up and stash it back in her packet, means of course we have to stop by the Baron’s establishment just to rattle his cage for grins.” Oh, yeah, she and Vampire Baron Geoff Montague had history, rat bastard.
“If you need anything—men, artillery, whotever you require, say it, and it is done.”
“Thank you, Sir Rodney… we’ll be sure to do that. But first we need to do the groundwork before we go to war.”
Hunter held his gaze. “We want to be sure to seek redress from the right culprit.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right,” Sir Rodney said, blotting the sweat from his brow. “Just keep me advised.”
“We will,” Sasha said, glancing at the air conditioner thermostat. She felt like she was burning up, yet it was only on sixty-seven degrees and blowing full blast.
A trickle of sweat ran down Sash’s neck and almost made her jump out of her skin. The cellar with a body in it was giving her the heebie-jeebies. For reasons she couldn’t explain, if her life depended on it, her senses were more than keened—there was a level of skittishness haunting her now that was normally not a part of her make-up as a soldier.
Hunter caught her start, his gaze steady but questioning. There was also something too tense in it that she wasn’t ready to cope with right now.
Regaining her concentration, Sasha sought Sir Rodney’s sad expression as a focal point. “If someone was chasing her, there would have been Phoenix plumes all around, and it doesn’t look like there was a struggle. No crates are crushed, the shelves are intact, there’s no scuff marks on the floor or evidence of an accelerant—as though someone came in and set her on fire or anything. No sulfur residue, so I’m not so sure it was a vamp attack… a Black Death charge leaves a really distinctive odor. But having a card from their club means something—I can feel it.”
Charred remains still stung her nose even though they were well away from the immediate site and general regulation damp cellar scent added to it, making Sasha slightly queasy. But there was nothing abnormal for her to latch onto… except a feral animal odor that she couldn’t define—and blood. She looked at Hunter for a moment, frustrated by the lack of evidence. “If it was wolves that went after her, well… they generally don’t go in for barbecuing their victims first.”
As soon as she’d said it, she regretted the last part of her statement when Sir Rodney blanched and looked away. “I’m sorry, you know what I mean. Wolves eat raw, the attack is immediate, and Desidera’s remains weren’t disturbed as though a wolf had gone after her and left her dismembered before she flamed.”
“It’s all right,” Sir Rodney said, turning away. “I know you’re just trying to make sense of this the best way you can… and your assessment matches mine. That’s why I just don’t understand how something like this could happen. She wasn’t suicidal. She was happy!”
Sir Rodney’s gaze was fixed to a point on the wall and then he slowly nodded. “Save her unusually nervous behavior tonight, she was happy.” He briefly closed his eyes again as he released a long sigh. “The damnable part of this is, it all happened in a crowded establishment. There could have been hidden Vampires here, sorcerers, witches—covens even, Werewolves from the outlawed Louisiana Buchannan clan. How would we even know where to begin? But she got on with everyone… didn’t have an enemy in sight.”
Sash and Hunter exchanged a glance.
“Before you arrived, we searched the entire cellar, even turning over dusty bottles and looking within and beneath every crate down there,” Sir Rodney said, his voice tight with emotion as he pushed off the banister. “There’s nothing here but her remains. As you said, no sign of a struggle, no Vampire sulfur residue, and no evidence of a werewolf attack. It makes no sense.”
“That’s just the thing,” the bodyguard said, his gaze traveling to each face before him, “Ethan McGregor told us that his girls have no reason to be down there. His bartender might come for a restock of private label—should they have Vampire guests… but ever since that disastrous row with them a few months ago, they wouldn’t put out a shilling much less pay US currency to support his establishment. McGregor claimed that he hadn’t had to break a blood-tainted case of Marsecco in months. So, if milady ventured down here, for what reason could it have been?”
“Rest assured, man,” Sir Rodney said, glaring at his best man before returning his angry gaze to Sasha and Hunter, “this was no accident, nor is it contagion, and it has nothing to do with her wanting privacy to flame. Someone was responsible and I want that person found!”
Sasha reached in her back pocket and held out her notebook to Sir Rodney, flipping to the page that she’d sketched the symbol on. “No offense… but you knew her body nude, I’m assuming. Did she have this mark on her before she died?”
Sir Rodney snatched the book and quickly handed it back to Sasha. “No!”
“What is it?” Sasha said in a soft voice as Sir Rodney turned away.
“Sorcery at its worst.”