Blood's shadow: the lycanthropy files, book 3

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Encountering werewolves can be deadly. Trying to cure them? Murder.

The Lycanthropy Files, Book 3

As the Investigator for the Lycanthrope Council, Gabriel McCord encountered his share of sticky situations in order to keep werewolf kind under the radar of discovery. Now, as the Council’s liaison to the Institute for Lycanthropic Reversal, he advocates for those who were turned werewolf against their will.

Everyone seems to be on board with the Institute’s controversial experimental process—until one of its geneticists is found lying on his desk in a pool of blood.

Gabriel races to single out a killer from a long list of suspects. Purists, who believe lycanthropy is a gift that shouldn’t be returned. Young Bloods, who want the cure for born lycanthropes as well as made. The Institute’s own very attractive psychologist, whose most precious possession has fallen into the hands of an ancient secret society bent on the destruction of werewolves.

Failure means he’ll lose his place on the Council and endanger the tenuous truce between wizard and lycanthrope. Even if he wins, he could lose his heart to a woman with deadly secrets of her own.

Warning: Some bloody scenes, adult language, and consensual sex between adults. Also alcohol consumption at Scottish levels and tempting portrayals of unhealthy Scottish food.

Blood’s Shadow

Cecilia Dominic

Dedication

If someone had told me two years ago that I would have three books out in thirteen months, I would have told them they were crazy, and if they could make it happen, I would owe them big. Well, it happened, and I need to thank several people.

First, to the readers who took the chance and picked up a brand new author in the crowded urban fantasy/paranormal world, thank you! I couldn’t have done this without you. Whether we interact online or in person or only through the characters who inhabit my imagination and now yours, I’m so grateful you’ve allowed me to share this experience with you.

Second, if I have anyone who’s been a fairy godmother in this process, it’s my wonderful Samhain editor Holly Atkinson. She challenges me and makes my work the best it can be. Kudos also go out to my critique group—Amy, David, Kimberly, and Susan—who help me get my words right and make sure I’m not missing any bodies by the end of my books. Thank you all for your patience and feedback!

Third, to Amber my awesome adminion who keeps me sane and organized at the office, I couldn’t have done all this without you.

Fourth, I have to thank my family, especially my husband Jason for his caring and support. Whether it’s due to me stressing out over proposals, meeting deadlines, or marketing, he’s always there with a big hug and an appropriately calming beverage.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this book in loving memory of my Italian grandmother Cristina Rose, an avid reader who wrote a book once upon a time but never pursued a writing or publishing career. I’m grateful for the genes, the support while you were still with us, and the continued prayers from Heaven.

Chapter One

I noticed the blood first. Earthy and metallic, its scent wove over and under the olfactory texture of the clinic, a red ribbon among the blues and greens of antiseptic and rubber glove. If it had been any other clinic, and I had been any other type of man, I might have dismissed it or processed it with only mild curiosity. But here among my fellow predators at the Institute for Lycanthropic Reversal, the spilling of blood in the quantities I sensed meant someone had made a deadly mistake.

As Lycanthropy Council Investigator, I was accustomed to fixing mistakes, and I thanked whatever gods may be watching that I had come on this official Council visit instead of one of the others.

“Mister McCord?” The woman’s voice startled me and brought my attention back to the human part of the brain, mostly ruled by the visual.

I was glad to be back in the realm of sight, and my impressions resolved into a lovely picture. The voice came with high cheekbones with a dusting of freckles, large gray-blue eyes, and long dark red hair pulled back in a ponytail. I could even forgive the flat American accent—which stood out to me no matter how often I heard it here in my home country—particularly as it came through pale pink lips pursed in inquiry.

“And you are?” I turned on all my Scottish charm, mindful that, as a former colleague had said, “American chicks dig the accent.”

“I am Doctor Selene Rial, one of the psychologists.” Her tongue rolled therjust enough to make me focus on her mouth and her full lips before she took my outstretched hand. She leaned in and again surprised me, this time by giving me the customary sniff of our kind’s greeting. On ourfacialcheeks, lest you think I’m being crude. Her scent brought to mind a vivid image of a waterfall in the humid twilight of the American Southeast in summer and a lithe red wolf watching its broken reflection in the ripples of the pool below. I wondered, as usual, what she caught from mine.

Whatever she saw, amusement and some concern flickered across her face when she stepped back. “It is an honor to have you here. We haven’t seen much of the Council since the Institute’s ground breaking ceremony.”

I inclined my head. “I am pleased to be here. But tell me, has there been an accident? I smell blood.”

Her eyes widened. “Do you? I don’t think anyone has spilled any today. We fired the tech who dropped the sample tray last week.” She bit her lip. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”

I would have been charmed by her guilelessness had I not been distracted. “Perhaps we should investigate.”

“Follow me.” She led me through the door and to a stairway on the left. The smell diminished to just the barest hint such that I wouldn’t notice it if I wasn’t looking.

Lonna Marconi-Fortuna, the Institute’s co-director and another werewolf, met us in the hall with her husband Doctor Max Fortuna, wizard and other co-director, at her side. The tension eased in my chest when I saw them. They had been my main concern.

“What is it, Gabriel?” Lonna asked when she saw my expression.

“Can you not smell it?”

She shook her head. “No, but your senses are better than ours—just one of the many ways how those of us who were changed by the vector differ from those of you who were born with CLS.” She wrinkled her nose. “But now that you mention it, something smells off.”

“Interesting.” I moved ahead of them, not wanting to lose the faint blood scent. I chased it down the corridor, its ribbon thickening as I ran down another staircase and through a maze of hallways until all that stood between me and full-on assault was the door to an office. Max caught up to me and wrinkled his nose, telling me how strong the odor was since he was a wizard, and therefore limited to human-level senses.

“I told the ladies to stay back,” he said.

I nodded. “Whose office is that?”

“Doctor Otis LeConte. He’s one of our geneticists. He’s a human.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You have full-blooded humans working here already?” As soon as I said it, I recognized how ridiculous it sounded. Of course I knew they hired humans, and the scientists would have started with the others. My attention was only half on the conversation. I wanted to help the poor bugger, but I listened and smelled for signs of an assailant to avoid potential ambush.

“He was the first we hired. It was one of the items we had on our list to talk to you about today. Do you hear anything in there?”

“No, nothing’s moving.”

He moved forward, then stopped and looked at me. “At your command, Gabriel.”

“Go on.”

He opened the door and stumbled back, his hand over his nose and mouth.

“Come now, you’re a physician. It can’t be that—” But it was. LeConte lay splayed out on his desk, his lab coat dripping with the contents of his circulatory system onto the dark brown carpet. Both wrists had been gashed open, as had his neck, and his eyes stared at the ceiling in horror. Files had been turned out on the floor and had become a Red Sea of paper.

As I recoiled in horror, my mind catalogued observations to sift through later. There was a laptop computer on a shelf to the side and several little statues and knickknacks that looked to be made of precious metal also stood in front of books on the bookcases.Not a robbery, then.I would have to wait and see what the coroner said—he was one of us as well—but the wounds didn’t look like they had been made by werewolves. Perhaps someone pretending to be one of us, but definitely not us. Also, the window stood wide open, which allowed the air to circulate. It had likely kept any of the younger ones from smelling the blood, although I still didn’t understand howsomeonedidn’t notice something.

“Oh my god! Otis?”

I caught Selene’s arm before she barged into the room. “There’s nothing to be done for him. You’ll only interfere with evidence now.”

Her face had gone white, even her freckles, and she wobbled. I pulled her to me so she wouldn’t fall should she faint, and I found she fit perfectly against my chest. I filed that away for future consideration as well, turned, and guided her to a chair in the hallway. She slumped forward, her head between her knees, and took deep breaths. Truth be told, I felt woozy as well, and the hand I placed on her trembling shoulder might have been as much to steady myself as her. I hoped my father wasn’t looking down from wherever werewolves went after they died and shaking his head in shame at his weak-stomached son. It seemed unfair I could eviscerate animals with ease, and I could even handle the usual murder victim, but the sight of such brutality always got to me. I blamed childhood trauma.

“I don’t want to know, do I?” asked Lonna. She stood with her arms crossed and looked down at Selene. Max had closed the door and gone to call the police. Not the human ones. Lord knows we didn’t need them mucking about in here.

“You’re going to need to find a new geneticist,” I told her. “He’s been exsanguinated.”

She arched an eyebrow. “You and your big words. Someone sucked his blood?”

I started to shake my head, but then stopped. A man LeConte’s size—and I was pretty good at guessing heights and weights—would contain about five liters of blood. What I had seen looked like a lot, but after a certain point and with the element of surprise, any amount over about a liter would seem excessive. His neck and wrists had still been dripping, which told me the deed was recent. I stood, commanded my knees to stop their schoolboy knocking, and said to Lonna, “Can you take care of her? I need to see if I can find the trail of the perpetrator.”

Lonna nodded and sat next to Selene, whose breathing deepened and lengthened into quiet sobs.

I found Max outside LeConte’s window, which was on the first floor. I half-expected to see him performing some sort of spell or doing something else wizardly, but instead, he shone a light on the ground.

“Ultraviolet with a little magical help,” he said. “If there was blood on the bastard’s shoes, it’ll show, but the sun is too bright for me to see. Can you stand there?”

“I can’t imagine how there wouldn’t be anything on the killer’s shoes unless he’d covered them with something.” I moved to create a shadow on the ground.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t rained in days—an unusual state of affairs for Scotland, even in the summer—and the ground was dry, so there were no impressions to be found. Between the two of us, we detected some blood splotches on the mulch under the bushes outside of the building and some bent grass blades. Of course, the traces petered out, but at least it was along a straight trail leading directly toward the woods.

“I’m going to change and go after him,” I said.

Max nodded and turned to give me some privacy. To his credit, he didn’t say that would have been the thing to do in the first place, although I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner. Finding LeConte’s body had shaken me, as had the implications. My mind raced with what I would tell the Council and how they would react.

It crossed my mind that someone inside the building may be watching, and the thought made my skin crawl, but time was too precious to waste on privacy concerns, and Max was there in case someone decided to take advantage of that moment of disorientation when the change was almost complete. I divested myself of my garments and left them in as neat a pile as I could, and took a deep breath. The life force of nature of the woods and trees nearby reached out to me, and I to the wild energy. It enveloped my limbs, traveling down my nervous pathways to blood, bone, and sinew, drawing everything to the center. I simultaneously folded inward and outward, gritting my teeth at sensations that, although they had become familiar, were never comfortable—like hands molding and rearranging me with no regard for the limits of my tendons and muscles. I understood the change differed for everyone, and I envied those for whom it was easy. Some legends held that werewolves wore their animal skin on the inside when they were human. Turning inside out would have been easier.

Finally, after I had physically rearranged myself, I panted for a few breaths and then took off. The path that had been illuminated by the UV light now showed itself to me with the scent of LeConte’s blood, heavy and fatty and crying out for vengeance. The dim light of the woods barely registered as my nose directed me to turn right, left, over, under, squeezing between. Whoever had murdered the scientist had his own interesting scent, a combination of pipe smoke and kerosene.

The trail ended at a stream, but there was still enough scent in the air to figure out which way the murderer had run. From what I could recall, there were busy roads on either side of the woods where a getaway car and driver could be waiting.

I chose the direction my nose told me to go and found the trail about forty meters north. The blood was gone, but the kerosene-pipe smoke smell was there along with sweat. That scent disappeared along the side of a road, where a small pull-off could have hidden a vehicle behind some trees, and I noted where it was so the police could come look for tire tracks. Not that they’d likely find anything of any help in the dry gravel.

I trotted back toward the Institute, and a lithe red wolf surprised me in the woods on the other side of the stream. She smelled familiar.

“Selene?”

“Gabriel?”She sat back on her haunches and regarded me with a concerned look.“Did you catch them?”

“Obviously not. And what are you doing out here? They could’ve been armed.”

In spite of lacking human facial muscles and their range of expression, we lycanthropes can express our emotions adequately without speaking, and her glare told me she was pissed even without her baring her teeth.

“Otis was my friend. I wasn’t going to let them get away.”She turned and walked in the direction from where she’d come.

“I wasn’t either,”I told her.

“Obviously not,”she tossed over her shoulder at me.

I ran to catch up with her.“Look here, there’s no reason to get sarcastic with me. You’ve had quite a shock, but I’m only trying to help.”

The tears came through her mental voice.“Don’t you think Otis’s murder could have something to do with your visit? The timing is odd, isn’t it?”

Her question would’ve floored me had we been near a floor. Here I had gone chasing after a potentially armed villain—yes, I could acknowledge my own bravado and stupidity here—and she had started sorting through the facts like a scientist. I blamed the surge of attraction I felt toward her on my current animal state, my tendency to fall for smart women, and our situation. We’d faced death and now strolled, albeit briskly, through lovely woods on a summer day. I’d learned two years previously not to fall for scientists. They’ll stick with their own every time.

“You’re quiet,”she said.“I apologize if I offended you.”

“No offense taken. I was just pondering what you said, and I sincerely hope my visit today had nothing to do with your friend’s death.”

“It would be a coincidence, and I don’t believe in those. All I know is that a dear friend has been killed in a horrible manner.”

I wanted to dissect the manner in which she’d said “dear friend” so I could quell the jealousy that blossomed in my chest. Had she and LeConte been lovers but covered it up to avoid a workplace scandal?

Stop acting like a pup,I scolded myself.What the lovely Selene does on her own time is her business.Still, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret when we left the woods, walked into the sunshine of the Institute grounds, and once again became Lycanthropy Council Member and scientist.

“I see the cavalry is here,”she said.

Indeed, the yellow-and-blue marked car, just similar enough to the human police vehicles, had arrived, its lights whirling. When I got close, Lonna’s mental voice came to me:“The police are here, and the detective wants to see you first.”

Chapter Two

Selene changed in her office, and I in Max’s, and then Detective Garou met me in the conference room. He rubbed his close-cropped beard and studied me with narrowed eyes.

“Sorry to be presumptuous sir, but aren’t you…?” His accent held a hint of French, definitely more continental than English or Scottish.

“Yes, I’m Gabriel McCord, Investigator for the Lycanthrope Council.”

“Oh. Dreadfully sorry to trouble you, sir. You may go.”

“No,” I said and stopped myself from snapping at him, choosing instead to patiently explain. “I was there when the body was discovered. Question me like you would any other witness on the scene.”

“Right, then. What was the nature of your business here today?” He glanced at the clock. “And when did you arrive?”

“That’s better. I was here on official Council business, mostly to see how they’ve been progressing with starting up and to help determine whether they’re ready for the first batch of applicants.”

“I’ve heard of this place, sir, but I don’t know what it’s about. The Council has kept it all hush-hush, calling it merely ‘The Institute’.”

“The full name is The Institute of Lycanthropic Reversal. It’s a sanitarium for the newly turned werewolves in the United States and elsewhere tainted vaccines were used as part of a horrible pharmaceutical experiment.”

“So that’s why there’s so many Americans here. Why not just build it over there?”

“The method is still experimental. Some of the substances have been approved for study here, but not by their Food and Drug Administration.”

He nodded. “And the time you arrived, sir?”

“About nine o’clock.”

“And when you discovered the body? It was you, correct?”

I told him how I smelled the blood and about the discovery of the body, my run through the woods, and where I think the getaway car had been stashed.

“Had you any contact with the deceased, sir? When he was alive, I mean.”

“None whatsoever. I imagine I would have met him today had circumstances been different.”

“Thank you, that is all.”

I gave him my card in case he had any further questions but doubted I’d hear from him. The Lycanthrope Police were creatures of the Council, which I disagreed with, but which had been well-established by the time I came on. He surprised me by stopping me before I left the room.

“Sir, since you’re the Investigator, and all this will be going to the Council anyway, would you like to sit in on the questioning?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Thank you, Detective. I had not thought to ask, but that would be helpful.”

He gestured for me to take the seat beside him and walked into the hall to have his deputy summon the next person.

When Lonna entered the room, she pressed her lips into a line and nodded to me. It occurred to me that I knew this group of people’s secrets except for the lovely Selene, who had intrigued me by following me. There were things I had not shared with the Council, and I knew I’d have to be careful not to betray I knew more than they did. In that context, the detective’s invitation no longer seemed so friendly.

“When was the last time you saw Doctor LeConte alive?” Garou asked.

“This morning at staffing at eight o’clock,” Lonna said, her lovely light green eyes filling with tears. I waited for her to add something and then remembered her background as a social worker and private investigator. She would be careful and only answer what was asked.

Garou seemed to come to the same conclusion. He leaned forward and said in a gentle voice, “Any information you can give us will be helpful. Was there anything unusual about the meeting?”

“No. We were mostly preparing for Mister McCord’s visit.”

“Yes, he told me that he was here in an official capacity. What was Doctor LeConte’s task to be?”

“He and Doctor Rial were to give him a tour, and then we were all going to have a meeting and then lunch.”

“And what was his role here?”

“He’s our associate geneticist.” She sniffled. “Or he was.”

“I see. You have another one, then.”

“Yes, Iain MacPherson, a human. He’s out of the country currently.”

“And where were you between when you last saw Doctor LeConte and when Mister McCord and Doctor Fortuna discovered him?”

“I was in a meeting with Doctor Rial and Doctor Fortuna, finalizing the details of the visit.”

Garou made a note in his pad. “Why was Doctor LeConte not present?”

“He was working on a project, but I can’t say more,” she said. “It’s confidential Institute business.”

“I see.” He dismissed her with an aerial downstroke of his pen and said, “That will be all.”

She gave me a pleading look before she rose from the table and stalked to the door.

“Excuse me,” I said to Garou. “Please continue without me.”

I caught up to Lonna in the hall and followed her up the stairs to her office. Max had been called in next, and Selene had been instructed to stay in her office until summoned, so Lonna was alone.

“Come in,” she said. Her office fit her title of Institute Director with a large desk, windows overlooking the lawn and woods, bookshelves, and even two wingback chairs in front a fireplace. Their clawed feet rested on an oriental rug.

“Nice,” I said. “It’sMasterpiece Theatremeets University President’s office.”

“Thanks, I think.”

“Sorry,” I told her. “I’m a little off, so my jokes aren’t working like they should.”

“Oh.” She gestured for me to take a seat in one of the chairs by the fireplace, which was, of course, not on. She went behind the desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out two bottles of water. “My fridge isn’t here yet,” she said and handed one of the waters to me.

“I was hoping you’d offer me some Scotch.”

“Not while the police are still here. Max has some rum in his office if you want to get into something later.”

“I might.”

She plopped into the other chair and took a deep drink of the water. “This isn’t how I’d hoped your visit would go.” She tucked a stray dark curl behind one ear. “I was looking forward to showing our facility off and walking you through the reversal process, or at least our planned method for it.”

“Yes, I imagine you had a different agenda. We can discuss other things if you like, but I am interested to know what LeConte was doing while you met without him.”

“He was the one who excused himself,” she said. “We didn’t kick him out.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“He was excited because Iain had sent him the files and blood samples for the first batch of applicants for our program recently, and he wanted to review and organize them so he could tell you we’d made progress on that front.”

“Where are the files now?”

“Good question. Since the Council still requires us to do everything with paper, probably in the mess in his office.”

“The Red Sea,” I murmured.

She covered her eyes and groaned. “Gabriel…”

“I know, I know. I told you, I’m off today. Would Iain have kept copies?”

“Yes, in case the ones he sent were lost in transit. We can tell him the bad news and ask about the files in another couple of hours when he checks in. It’s still early there.” She looked at me sideways. “Go ahead and ask, Gabriel. You know you want to.”

“Ask what?”

“Where Wolf-Lonna was and why didn’t she go after the perpetrators once y’all discovered Otis.”

“It hadn’t crossed my mind.” Indeed, her odd situation hadn’t even occurred to me until now. Whereas most of us could not access certain parts of our spirit, Lonna had a sort of spirit guide or guardian who was simultaneously part of her and capable of independent action and thought.

“I sent her to watch over Abby.” She gestured to a photo on the mantel of a baby girl with light green eyes and hair the same reddish color as Max’s. “I was so afraid, not sure who might have been attacking us or why, but I might have ruined the opportunity to catch the murderer.”

“You did what any mother would have done,” I said. “And we were all shocked.”

“I know, but now I’m afraid the whole thing will tempt Max to push his boundaries, and I can’t lose him.”

These were the secrets we couldn’t discuss in front of the detective. “Has he said he wants to use blood magic to talk to LeConte’s spirit?”

“No, but I know him. It will only be a matter of time, and if he uses it outside the narrow parameters we know are safe…” She shuddered.

“Your husband is a smart man. He won’t do anything that could hurt you and Abby.”

As if our words had summoned him, the door opened to reveal Max with a bottle of rum in one hand. He looked from me to Lonna, and the ease with which we had been conversing disappeared. By this point, she and I had moved past our brief but significant history, but I could see awareness of it in her husband’s eyes every time he looked at me.

“They’re almost done,” he said, his tone weary. “The detective wants to talk to you again, Gabriel.”

“Thank you. I may be back for a nip of that.” I gestured to the bottle in his hand.

“I brought it to share.”

I found Detective Garou in the reception area, talking to Selene.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not available on Friday night,” she was saying, and I quickened my stride.

The disappointed look on Garou’s face confirmed they weren’t speaking about the case.

“The detective was kindly offering to bring me to a Solstice ceilidh,” Selene told me, “since I’m obviously not from around here. However, I’m not free that night.”

“You needed to speak to me, Detective Garou?” I asked, moving to stand between them so as to give Selene a buffer should she need it.

“I’ll be in my office,” she murmured and excused herself with a thank you smile, which she seemed to direct at me.

“I may have some follow-up questions for the doctors and Mrs. Marconi-Fortuna as well as the rest of the staff, whom Doctor Fortuna said would be reporting soon,” he said. “If I do, I will let you know so you may stay involved with the investigation.”

“I would appreciate that, as would the Council. I would also remind you that Doctor Rial is a potential witness and a suspect.”

He narrowed his eyes. “As I would you, Investigator.”

“I would say something, but there is nothing to defend myself against. I only met her today, and I’m not the one who just asked her out.” I fixed him with a glare that told him he needed to focus on his work. “Anything else, Detective?”

“That is all.”

“Good. Please keep me apprised of your progress with the investigation and let us know when someone can go into LeConte’s office and see what could be missing.”

“Yes, sir.” With a slight bow, he left to supervise the forensic team as they cleaned up outside. I had no doubt they would follow the same trail I had with the same result, but they had the equipment to get paint flakes off tree branches and other tiny pieces of evidence that even our wolf senses could miss.

With the detective and his crew gone, quiet stuffed the reception area. I stood by the window and plotted my course of action. I would have to make a report to the Council, of course, but I didn’t feel I had all the information. What could LeConte have been doing or have known to be the target of whoever had done that to him? Why such a brutal murder when something like poison in his coffee could have been as effective and much less messy? No, the way in which he had died—and I forced myself to shift through the details of what I had seen in spite of them turning my stomach—was significant.

Max’s voice startled me out of my reverie. “Lunch is here if you feel like eating.”

I turned to see him watching me from the door to the back hallway. As it had earlier, my nose picked up faint smells, this time of roast beef and potatoes. My stomach, fickle thing, growled.

“I suppose I do.” I followed him back up to Lonna’s office, where Selene sat in one of the wingback chairs, a plastic cup in her hand. The sweet smells told me it was rum and soda.

“What are you drinking?” I asked. “And where can I get one?”

“Rum and Coke,” she said and waved the glass at me. “Tastes like home.”

Lonna handed me a drink. “Sorry we don’t have any Scotch. I looked.”

“Thank you.” Lunch sat in chafing dishes on a long table against one of the bookshelves, and I made myself a plate and sat in the other chair by the fireplace. Lonna and Max sat at her desk. Although we didn’t face each other, it was easy enough to talk.

“You’re not eating,” I told Selene.

“Don’t feel like it.” She looked at me with tears in her eyes. “I just keep going back to this morning and wishing I’d insisted Otis not go back to his office, that the applications could wait.”

“He did seem very excited about something,” Max said.

I checked my watch. “Is it late enough to call Iain?”

“He’s normally up early,” Lonna said. “Might as well try.” She picked up her phone and dialed out.

I crossed my right ankle over my left knee and tried to appear at ease. I was not Iain McPherson’s favorite person, and the feeling was mutual. I hoped we could keep our conversation cordial for the sake of those grieving in the room.

Chapter Three

“Iain,” Lonna said. “Good morning. Did I wake you?” She pressed the button to turn the speaker feature on, and Iain’s cheerful voice came through.

“I was already up. Had the oddest feeling something was wrong.”

Lonna opened her mouth but covered it with her left hand to stifle a sob.

“Bad news,” Max said and covered Lonna’s other hand with his own. “Otis has been killed.”

“Killed? Are you sure?” Noises came through the phone as though he rearranged its positioning against his ear.

“Well, yes,” said Max. “He was quite dead.”

“At the Institute? Could it have been an accident?”

“Yes, here, and no, that’s not possible. Look, I don’t want to give you the horrid details over the phone, but Gabriel McCord, the Council Investigator, is here, and we need some information from you.”

“Gabriel.” Iain’s tone was cool, as it always was when he dealt with me. I was working undercover for the Council when I’d assisted him with his research, and he hadn’t taken the revelation well when I finally came clean.

“Iain,” I said, trying to keep the impatience from my voice. He’d always treated me as an intellectual inferior, so it was as pleasant for me to talk to him as it obviously was for him to hear from me. “Look, I apologize for having to interrogate you when you’ve just found out about your colleague. Would you like me to call you later?”

“Why? He’s going to be just as dead then. Ask your questions.”

“Iain,” Lonna said, “I know this is a shock…”

“It’s fine,” I told her. “What had you sent to Doctor LeConte, Iain? I understand it was all on paper.”

“Yes, because you’ve done such a fine job of dragging the Council into the twenty-first century. I’d mailed him the first six applications for the Experimental Adjustment and Reversal Program along with the blood samples and other material data.”

“Was there anything unusual about any of them?”

“It depends on your definition of ‘unusual’. They’re all Americans who were infected with CLS by vaccines and who experienced the full change. Four males and two females, all of Scandinavian or Celtic descent.”

“Has anyone on your team there been threatened?” I asked.

“I’ll check with Joanie and Leo, but not as far as I know.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I’ll be in touch if I need anything else. Oh, could you send an encrypted file with the information to the team here? We’re still looking for the blood samples.”

“Yes, it will take a few hours to get it all encrypted and uploaded, but I’ll get right on it.”

He rang off, and we all sat and looked at each other. The dead man may as well have been in the room with us, we were so somber. I was the only Scot, but the others easily matched our stereotypical grimness.

I stood. “Thank you for lunch, especially under the circumstances. I’ll let you know what the Council says with regard to proceeding.”

“Otis wouldn’t have wanted us to stop,” Selene said. “He would’ve told us to keep going without him. It’s important to the mission that we do.”

Her Southern US heritage had become evident in her vowels, likely an effect of the rum.

“I will do my best to make sure you can proceed soon.”

“I’ll see you out,” Max said.

Selene wobbled to her feet and said, “I’ll take him. I need to get something out of my car.”

“Are you sure you’re okay to do that?” Lonna asked. “You’ve just had a strong drink on an empty stomach.”

Selene looked at me, her eyes imploring, and I interjected, “I’ll watch her and ensure she gets back into the building safely.”

“Thank you,” she said once we’d left the room and were out of earshot down the hall. “I just need a few minutes to breathe and be alone.”

“Shall I leave you, then?”

She looked up at me through her lashes, where tiny crystal-like tears clung and gave her an exotic, fairy-like appearance. “No. God knows I shouldn’t, but I feel comfortable with you.” She sighed as if she wound up to say more, but she shook her head.

“You can tell me whatever you need to. Is there something about this morning?”

“No, nothing important.” But she looked away.

We reached the side door that led outside, and I held it open for her. She glanced around before stepping into the watery sunshine. I couldn’t blame her—after the events of the morning, I definitely felt like peeking around corners before I turned them and snarling at shadows. Although I knew she must be strong if she was one of us, her cautious gestures made me want to protect her. And find out what she might be hiding.

She’s a scientist and she might have just lost her boyfriend,I told myself, although my instincts told me she and LeConte hadn’t been lovers.Still, she’s off limits.

I watched her as she fetched a small bag from her car and went back inside. Still, my mind wouldn’t let her go as I drove away, although I wasn’t sure if I was more interested in her as a person or in the mystery she seemed to hold. Either way, I’d enjoy finding out.

When I returned to my offices at Lycan Castle, the seat of the Lycanthrope Council, I found a stack of files on my desk and a blessedly welcome pot of coffee. Less welcome was the message slip my assistant Laura handed to me.

“Lady Morena wants you to phone her as soon as you get settled.”

“I’m going to have to delay getting settled, then, aren’t I?”

“She didn’t seem in the mood to be pushed,” she told me and looked sternly over her thick rectangular glasses.

“Yes, mum.”

“Cheeky,” she said as I walked into the inner office.

“It’s a good thing you make such good coffee. You can be replaced, you know.”

Now she took off her glasses and squinted at me. “You’ve met someone. You haven’t threatened to replace me since you phoned to tell me you were close to finding Charles Landover’s secret laboratory in Arkansas and his granddaughter was delightful.”

“Yes, and we remember how well that turned out. Please fetch me the personnel files on the Institute staff.”

“Morena. Call her.”

I gave a noncommittal shrug and closed the door. Once I was safely out of Laura’s line of sight, I tossed the message slip into the unlit fireplace. Although nothing burned due to the warm early summer weather, the small act of rebellion gave me momentary satisfaction. I wanted todosomething, not waste my time writing reports and waiting for the waffling of the Council to determine that Lonna, Max and Selene could proceed with their plans. Frankly, I didn’t think the Council should be involved in the Institute, but it hadn’t been my decision, and even though one of their own was an integral part of it, the Wizard Tribunal hadn’t pushed back. Likely they waited to see how it all worked out so that if it failed, they wouldn’t have to take any responsibility for it. They’d just throw poor Max under the bus. Coldhearted bastards.

Laura brought the personnel files in, and I tossed aside Lonna’s, Max’s, and the lower staff members’. The first one I looked at was Selene Rial’s. A health psychologist who’d been educated in the States and turned after a flu shot introduced the viral vector into her system, she had been invited to join the team when Iain had been impressed with her. He observed that she took everything in stride and while she appreciated the challenges of being a lycanthrope, she could step back and look at the situation objectively, or at least more so than any of the other candidates he’d interviewed—both human and werewolf. He’d written that she had a “unique and sympathetic perspective” on the difficulties CLS sufferers faced, even beyond her own experience.

Meanwhile, Otis LeConte, a geneticist, had worked in the same lab as Joanie Fisher, now Joanie Bowman, prior to her being fired and turned. When I closed my eyes, I still saw Joanie standing on the balcony off her bedroom at Wolfsbane Manor, watching me change, her eyes burning with curiosity and—

“Lady Morena has arrived.” Laura’s voice startled me from the memory.

“Right,” I said. “I didn’t call her.”

“She said she couldn’t wait, and she expects to be seen immediately or she will fire me and every other staff member you depend on so that your lazy ass will have to learn to do things for itself.”

A headache started in my right temple, and I massaged it, hoping it wouldn’t flare up into a full-blown migraine. Although modern science had given a name to my “sick headaches,” the medicines didn’t work for me. Losing my staff wouldn’t help it, so I said, “Send her in.”

Morena glided in without picking her feet very far off the floor. She wore her customary navy blue pantsuit and flats. She’d adapted well to this new era in which women could dress like men. When she and I had worked together in the fifties, the skirts and heels of the time had always looked like they enjoyed being worn by her as much as she enjoyed wearing them. Her yellow eyes took in the details of the office, specifically the message slip in the fireplace, but she didn’t say anything about it.

I bowed. “What a pleasant surprise, Chairwoman.”

As always, she got directly to the point. It was one of the few things I liked about her. “I understand there’s been some unpleasantness at the Institute.”

I gestured for her to take a seat in one of the chairs in front of my desk. She sat with spine straight. I could count the number of times I’d seen her relax on one hand.

“So you’ve spoken with Garou,” I said and sat in the other one. My office wasn’t as cozy as Lonna’s but still held a fair number of volumes, and my eyes strayed to one shelf of books from the original Wolfsbane Manor. They were all I managed to rescue before the fire found the library, and I had dreamed of presenting them to Joanie when I returned for her. Alas, by the time I had made it through all the bureaucratic nonsense of the Council, she had been claimed by another.

“He filled me in on the obvious details. I want to know what you think he missed.”

“What did he find in the pull-off where the getaway car was?”

“What makes you think I’m going to tell you?” She leaned forward. This was our game.

“Because I’m the Council Investigator,” I said, “and even if you don’t tell me, I’ll get the report from Garou later. Might as well save me some time.”

“Insolent pup,” she growled. “I should have voted against making you Investigator. You were too young.”

I arched an eyebrow. “As I recall, you did, and yet here we are. The question is whether you’re going to help me do my job.”

“You never did respect your elders like you should,” she told me. “And no, the question is whetheryou’regoing to be able to do your job. Remember, you’re not a full Council member yet. You can be replaced.”

“I see no reason why I shouldn’t do my job, and yes, I do recall my position. You remind me of it every chance you get.”

She stood and walked behind the desk to where I had the files laid out. “Yet perhaps I do see potential areas of conflict for you, even beyond your friendship with the directors. What do you know of the dead man?”

I moved to close the open file, that of Selene. “He was a full human and a geneticist.” I grabbed for his file, but she held it away from me.

“And what else?”

“He’d gotten a batch of applications from Iain MacPherson, the CLS specialist and the other geneticist.”

“Do you know about a wife? Family? Even his nationality?”

“No, no, and I suspect American. As you know, I only just arrived when you barged in. What are you getting at?”

She flipped Selene’s file at me. “Only that you might be letting your small head overrule your big one.”

I winced. No matter how modern we got, I couldn’t get used to women speaking crudely. “I just received the files.”

“And see which one you opened first.” She slammed both fists down on the desk, which toppled an antique inkwell. I righted it before it could spill. “Dammit, Gabriel, this case goes beyond anything you’ve looked into for us, and it’s got more diplomatic pitfalls than you can imagine.”

“Oh?” Now she had me intrigued. I could forget the insult.

She ran a hand through her short gray hair. “We’ve been fighting the press away from the Institute for months now, basically since we started building it. Now we have to be careful that the human press doesn’t get hold of this story. It’s bad enough our community will know.”

“So we deflect the humans. Business as usual. What else?”

“I’m getting to it. After months of silence on the issue, the International Wizard Tribunal has come forward to say they do not support the project, and they want to pull Maximilian Fortuna off the staff. We’re trying to negotiate his staying.”

A low whistle escaped my lips. “If we don’t have him, we don’t have an Institute.”

“Right, and that’s why the wizards want to pull him. They haven’t come out and said it, but they’re on the side of the Purists. They believe this thing is a gift, and no one should take it away, especially not using a forbidden form of magic.”

“Blood magic is only part of the process. They haven’t told me the whole procedure. It’s proprietary, at least until they perfect it and can share it with the world.”

“No one knows it, and it makes the wizards antsy because they can’t study it and the lycanthrope Purists unhappy because they see it as reversing something that they have a birthright to.”

I ground my teeth. It was an argument that just wouldn’t go away. “We’re not taking anything away from them.”

“No, but they’re afraid nevertheless.”

“What does this have to do with LeConte’s murder?” I asked. “Do you think he was killed for trade secrets?”

“That, dear Investigator, is your job to figure out as quickly and quietly as you can. I’ll stall the Council, but keep in mind that they’ll want a report very soon.” She tapped a finger on Selene’s file. “And just remember that in our world, it’s rare that something is exactly as it seems.”

Morena’s cheerful visit left me with difficulty focusing. Her words swirled around my brain, especially what she hinted about Selene. As much as Morena frustrated me, she did have the admirable trait of not interfering in others’ personal lives. On the other hand, I knew next to nothing about hers. Although our rules of coupling and mating were looser than the pure humans’, and therefore she would see nothing wrong with me having a dalliance with Selene, I still had to worry about conflict of interest. And Morena’s warning about the wizards made this an even higher profile case.

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