“It’s much more boring to read your own police file than I would have thought,” said Cora, perched once more on the cardboard boxes by Hayes’ desk. “Although, I feel very sorry for whoever catalogued all the things they took from me for potential evidence. My dresses alone take up three pages.”
Hayes made a noncommittal noise, intent on the folder before him to the point of forgetting his half-eaten breakfast. Then she saw that the pages were marked AUTOPSY.
The realization that it must have been about Tierney drew a soft gasp out of her. Hayes looked over, his gaze sharp yet sympathetic. “I wasn’t sure you wanted to know anything from this one.”
“I can’t say I’ll enjoy it, but it’s important and I might be able to help.”
He flipped a few pages back. “The official cause of death is blood loss from multiple gunshot wounds and wolf bites. Both lead and silver bullets were recovered and matched to the injuries. The medical examiner also notes that there were several fresh scars, indicating he had either recently been attacked or that his body was healing before being overwhelmed by too much damage.”
“That poor man. When we had our fling, he didn’t have any scars at all. I suppose he could have gotten them since then, but I don’t see how. He lived at the house with the rest of the servants. Someone would have noticed if he’d gotten mangled.”
“Was he ever given time off?”
“Sunday evenings. That’s hardly enough time to recover from a round of bullets.”
Hayes nodded and kept glancing through the report. “He liked collecting tattoos, obviously. The autopsy report counts nine, including one left unfinished.”
Cora quickly added up all the tattoos she remembered on him. “Then he was getting a new one. The last time I had the chance to see them, there were only eight.”
“Might be something to check out. It’s obvious he liked intricate ones that took hours of work. That means the tattooist should know him a little.”
Cora found herself rubbing at the back of her head. The sigil didn’t burn any more than usual, but she still said, “Do you think this new tattoo could have been the source of the magic that changed him?”
Hayes’ voice lost some of its remoteness, as if he’d sensed why her thoughts turned in that direction. “Probably not the tattoo itself since it’s unfinished.”
Cora managed to keep quiet for a few breaths before asking a question that had burned at her since she’d seen Tierney in the mortuary. “What happened to him? Who could have done this?”
At that, Hayes offered a small but not unsympathetic smile. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
“I know, and it’s fun until I think of how Tierney didn’t deserve this by any means. Then it’s simply frustrating. I suppose it was foolish to believe meeting with the Saxbys would give us more information. Instead, they were just as baffled, and we didn’t learn anything useful at all.”
He closed the file. “I wouldn’t say that. They lied about a few things.”
“Really? Like what?”
“You said it yourself. They were more concerned about your father than Dominic Tierney. If they were only interested in the magic as claimed, then their main demand should have been having the body examined by the pack enchanters.”
Cora tried to think of the most logical explanation but quickly gave up and went with the first one that came to mind. “Perhaps the Frosthounds were telling the truth. Maybe my father did work with the Saxbys. It seems so unlike him, but then, he did like making money more than anything else. And his lawyer, Mr. Forrester, implied that Father was trying something new. Do you think that’s it? That one of the other wolf packs paid the informant to find out the details and then somehow used Tierney to kill my father? And perhaps he was meant to go after the Saxbys as well.”
Hayes didn’t look so convinced. “The thing is…”
Just then, a knock came at the front door—three brisk raps followed by the scrape of a key in the lock. A voice called out, rough with a growl. “Damn it, Sam, I’m not cleaning up this mess. Once I get you up, you are.”
Cora shot a startled look at Hayes, who sighed and leaned back in his seat. “She must have heard.”
“She?” repeated Cora, and then turned toward the doorway as a figure appeared in it, keys still in hand.
A she-wolf, slender despite the bulky thaumaturgist’s leathers she wore. Her red hair was thick and unstyled, framing a delicate, pointed face in wild waves, and she couldn’t be any taller than Cora herself. Her eyes, though… they were what dispelled any notion that she was someone fragile or weak. They were a wolf’s through and through.
The she-wolf fell silent and looked at them both, sharp and direct. Then, to Cora’s surprise, she grinned without showing her teeth. “Thank God. You found someone else to take care of you.”
Hayes ignored the comment. “Miss Marshall, this is Jane Feral. Jane, this is Cora Marshall. Be nice to her.”
“I’m never nice,” said Jane, eyeing Cora with a slight smirk. Then her gaze flickered back to him. “I heard about what happened and knew you’d drink yourself into a stupor. That’s the perfect thing to do with a head injury, by the way.”
Hayes cleared his throat. “I’m fine, Jane. How’d things go with the Mange hostage?”
“He ate all my food and won $300 from me playing billiards. Believe me, he went home happy.” Then her attention switched back to Cora. “How’d you get in? Did he give you a set of keys?”
The she-wolf certainly seemed prickly, but Cora saw no reason not to answer her honestly. “I know how to pick locks.”
“Strange habit for a fine lady.”
“Oh, I used to trap myself into rooms all the time as a child. One of the servants finally grew tired of rescuing me and taught me how to get out.”
Jane raised an eyebrow. “Looks like you know how to cook as well. And I’ve already heard you’re a crack shot.”
Cora offered a bright smile. “Then you know much more about me than I do about you.”
“Fair enough. I left the Saxby Pack at the same time as Sam. I’ve made a living supplying raw materials for other thaumaturgists or making custom enchantments, but I’ll also work on his cases whenever needed. We exiles must stick together.” Then Jane reached over to take a piece of toast from Hayes’ plate.
He pulled it out of reach and resumed eating, although not without a wry glance. “I’ve trusted her with my life, Miss Marshall. I think we’re at the point where you’ll have to do the same, because we need Jane’s expertise on a few things in this case.”
It stung to hear him still address her so formally even while he used Jane’s first name with such ease, but Cora was practical enough to realize now wasn’t the time to pout. “I’ll take all the help I can get.”
The she-wolf’s eyes glittered with amusement, but before she could respond, Hayes spoke her name with enough of a growl to suggest he knew she was about to be rude.
Jane looked unabashed. “You’re being very protective. Anyway, I left my findings on your desk yesterday while your face was being smashed in, so I’ll assume you never saw them. The samples I took from Dominic Tierney’s body indicate magic much more complicated than a spell. It’s most likely bio-thaumaturgy.”
Hayes swore under his breath, food forgotten.
Cora hesitated, not understanding what those flat words conveyed. “Miss Feral? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m hopelessly stupid when it comes to anything science-related.”
It was a perfect target for a sharp comment, but Jane only said, “At least you admit it. Most people don’t and waste my time. A person under a spell is separate from it. They might be controlled or affected by it, but it can be broken and they will go back to being exactly the same as before. A spell is created and cast. Think of a net trapping fish. They’re two separate things. Does that make sense?”
When Cora nodded cautiously, the she-wolf continued. “Bio-thaumaturgy changes a person permanently. Fuses with them, if you like. And instead of being cast, it’s created and then transmitted, usually through an injection, but sometimes absorbed through the skin or a superficial cut. Personally, I’m glad the results indicate this is what Dominic Tierney was under. It requires much more experience to create something successful compared to any hobbyist playing with a book of spells. Experience, experimentation, and privacy, since it’s strictly illegal.”
“Which means a lot of raw materials sent to a remote location,” said Hayes. Then he glanced at Jane. “Been shipping materials to anyone who fits all that?”
The she-wolf considered. “Three, all using fake names. I’m sure the addresses can’t identify them either, although never discount human stupidity. Clayton Dollar, Lily Pad, and Admiral Antwerth.”
Hayes was already writing it down. “Might get something out of it.”
“Doubtful. The last alias alone sounds like a child’s name for a stuffed toy.”
“He’s a rat terrier,” said Cora, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice.
They both stared at her.
When the silence stretched on, she repeated herself. “Admiral Antwerth is a rat terrier. He was Freddy Davenport’s beloved pet dog. I used to play with him quite often. Your customer must be Freddy!”
“Why am I not surprised you know Frederick Davenport, and on such a personal level?” said Jane, the smirk back on her face.
Cora was too delighted to be affected by the she-wolf’s derision. “He fits everything. He’s rich and owns a huge amount of land in and outside of the city. We should talk to him.”
“He’ll never be interrogated by a wolf,” said Jane. “He sees us as inferior creatures.”
“Yes, but I can talk to him.”
Cora glanced at Hayes and felt her hopes deflate, seeing the answer in his expression even before he said, “That’s not a good idea.”
“Why not? I’d be coy about it.”
Hayes shook his head while getting up from the desk. “I know you would, but we’ve talked about this. No sleuthing on your own. If Freddy Davenport does have anything to do with this, then he’s a dangerous man, and seeing you alone might be just what he wants.”
As Jane rifled through the files on the desk, seemingly losing interest in the conversation, Cora tried again. “I can’t believe Freddy is the brains behind this situation. I know him.”
“And you’re sure he couldn’t possibly do such a thing,” murmured Jane, flipping open a file and scrutinizing its pages.
Cora huffed. “I’m sure he couldn’t be an experimental thaumaturgist. If Freddy is a part of this, then I think he’s supplying the space for those who are, and maybe the protection of his name and connections as well. We’re completely alike, you see. Too impatient to make elaborate plans and much too silly to understand anything requiring hard thought.”
Then Hayes stepped close to her, his voice serious yet warm. “Miss Marshall, you’re not silly.”
The words were almost enough to soothe the increasing feeling of being left out, but then he added, “In fact, when people think you are, you’re shrewd enough to use it against them. Who’s to say Davenport is any different?”
“But…” Cora groped for words. “We can’t ignore this lead.”
“We’re not. Give me a few days to track down the people behind these other names and to figure out how to get us both in front of Freddy Davenport. This isn’t the kind of thing to rush into.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” said Cora, but couldn’t help feeling dissatisfied. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jane tuck a few folders beneath her arm. “I just feel like I can be more useful than going home and waiting.”
“Believe me, you won’t miss anything interesting. Do you want me to take you back home?”
“Oh, no, it’s all right. I drove here.” Cora didn’t feel like smiling, but she wore one anyway while glancing at Jane. “It was nice to meet you, Miss Feral.”
“I’m sure,” said Jane, sitting behind the desk to grab another file.
Hayes followed her to the car outside, and Cora found herself hesitating, feeling like there was more to be said even as she settled behind the wheel. “And you’re sure you’re all right?”
He smiled a little, that warm, wry one she was just starting to crave. “Thanks to you. I’ll call when I find out anything.”
Then there was nothing to do except drive away, and she did, unaware that he watched her until she disappeared from sight.
When he returned to his office, Jane raised her eyebrows. “I like her. I’m sure you remember I despised Isabelle.”
“I was wondering why you were gentle with her.”
“She killed Warren, for one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed of doing in that bastard myself. And she looked after you today, which means I didn’t have to. She might be a tad easy to rile, though. Did you smell her jealousy the moment you used my first name?”
When he didn’t respond, the humor faded from the she-wolf’s voice. “Since she knows how to get in here, we need to be careful. If she had looked at the wrong papers, she might’ve discovered you’re trying to take the sigil off her. Anything she knows, it does as well, and the only reason it allowed you to learn of its existence is because you’re working for its benefit—trying to find her father. If it thought you were a threat… well, any binding magic has self-defense mechanisms. Miss Marshall would find it extremely painful to be near you. Or would just have her brain fried completely. It depends on what her father wanted.”
Hayes grimaced. “Can you get it off her?”
“Maybe. I could give you a firmer answer if I knew the sigil’s maker.”
“I’m working on it.”
Jane nodded. “Is that the only thing you’re working on? I noticed you kept her away from the files about her father’s servants as well. When you noticeably left out what part of her memories were taken, I did my own investigation. You’re trying to find the man she was going to elope with, aren’t you?”
“You’re unusually interested in this.”
At that, Jane grinned. “You want to change the subject? Let’s talk about that new scar beneath your eye. I’m guessing it’s from Isabelle.”
Hayes’ jaw tightened. “I can’t say I’m interested in talking about that, either.”
“I am. She escaped back into Saxby land. Even though the Frosthounds have taken responsibility for the deaths during the meeting, the details are already circulating thanks to her. Who would have thought a spoiled heiress would also be a crack shot?”
Then Jane studied him carefully. When he said nothing, she added, “The last time you saw Isabelle, you wouldn’t talk for days. Yet here you are, already functional and able to think about other things. Maybe Miss Cora Marshall is doing some good for you.”
“Jane. Let’s get back to business.”
“Fine. Avoid it like you avoid all other matters of the heart. I’ve already given you a list of all the black market thaumaturgists I know. What else do you need?”
“Just work on what you can to destroy the sigil. I’ll comb through Isaac Marshall’s information and see if any of the names you’ve given me match.”
“Is that going to be the rest of your day?”
“Not if I finish cleaning up the mess I made. I want to have a word with Miss Marshall’s friend, Violet Granbury. Now that Freddy Davenport’s name is in the mix, she’s been bumped up a lot higher on my list of people I want to talk to. They’ve known each other for years. She might know something."
Cora really didn’t like feeling this way, and it only grew worse when she pulled into the driveway of her house. No, not her house. Her father’s. Her wretched, awful father. The sigil felt quiet, hardly warmer than her skin, but she hated the fact that it was there, and that its dormancy hadn’t quite erased feeling confined.
Inside, she paced through the rooms before flinging herself into the chair in her father’s study. Then she picked up the phone, dialing a number she still knew by heart.
Violet answered on the third ring. “Yes?”
“Vi? It’s me, Cora.”
“Darling, I know who you are. We’ve only been dearest friends since forever.” There was the sound of her taking a puff on her cigarette. “What’s wrong? You’ve got the throb in your voice that means you’re unhappy.”
“I wouldn’t say that, exactly. I’m just… bored.”
“Wasn’t shooting a pack yesterday exciting enough?”
“It was just one wolf. You can’t believe what the newspapers say. And maybe ‘bored’ isn’t the right word.” Cora hesitated, trying to understand the feelings boiling in her heart. “I’m beginning to think I don’t have a chance. That he really does just see me as a client.”
“So, that’s it. For the first time, you understand how it feels when a man isn’t interested. Or in your case, a creature. Poor ducky. Come over and tell me all about it. I’m in the middle of a massage, but don’t let that hold you back. Enrico doesn’t speak a word of English.”
Violet’s house looked much the same as when Cora had last seen it—a dour stone mansion with many narrow windows that, as a girl, had always reminded her of peering eyes. Ancient trees offered privacy from neighbors and roads, and Cora pulled into the gravel driveway without fear of being seen by nosy people who might have recognized her.
When the maid showed her into the right room, Violet exclaimed from her position on the massage table, lifting round sunglasses from her face while a man worked over her legs. “My goodness, you do look rotten. I’m bursting to hear everything.”
And she really did seem interested, silent yet attentive as Cora paced the room and recounted the day. In fact, it was so unlike her that as soon as Cora finished, she glanced over and said, “Oh, I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Poor me, so used to being the center of attention that I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not. But please, no smart remarks.”
“I never kick a girl when she’s down. There’s no fun in it. Besides…” Violet dismissed the man with a wave and reached for a cocktail waiting nearby. “It really is an unpleasant thing to realize.”
“It’s not just that. It’s more that I could feel myself being shut out of things. And he seemed so comfortable with Miss Feral. I suppose it made me realize just how proper he’s always been with me.” Then Cora settled by the nearest window and began plaiting the tassels on the drapes. “You really are a dear to listen to all this. Even I think it’s silly.”
“Oh, sweetie, you keep insisting I have things like a heart and conscience simply because we’ve been friends since childhood. I keep telling you, the only heart I have is this little one right here.” Violet ran fingers along the gold locket gleaming against her chest and then rose from the table to join her.
The dark silk of her robe highlighted the pallor of her skin and the purple hollows beneath her eyes. Just as Cora was about to ask if she felt sick, the other girl said, “Do you really think Freddy has anything to do with this mess?”
She sounded interested, as if the ‘mess’ in question were a simple scandal instead of the disappearance of her father and the death of his driver.
Cora shook her head. “I don’t think he’s the brains behind it at all. He’s much too much of a man who lives in the moment. I think he’s unintentionally involved, that’s all. I just wish I knew how.”
At that, Violet smiled and took another drag on her cigarette. “Then I’ve got good news for you. He’s having a party tonight. One of his ‘philosophy meetings.’”
“Oh, those.” Cora couldn’t muster much enthusiasm in her voice. “I don’t know, Vi. When you’ve been to one orgy, you’ve been to them all.”
“The point, you wonderfully silly thing, is that he’s called me up to see if I can coax you to go. He’s been aching to see you. Why not take the opportunity to ask him some questions on the sly?”
The initial burst of excitement in her heart faded as quickly as it had appeared. “I agreed I wouldn’t investigate anything on my own.”
Violet stared at her through wisps of smoke, as if she couldn’t believe Cora was being serious. “Cora Marshall, afraid to go against someone’s will? That was the only way you communicated with your father.”
“I know, but Detective Hayes is trying to help me. All he’s asked for is that we trust each other with the truth. I’m not afraid of him, Vi. I just don’t think that it’d be very honest of me to break my promise.”
“Darling, if he’s not about to fuck you, then who cares what he wants?”
When Cora just played with the tassels, refusing to look up, the other girl sighed. “I can’t believe you’re acting so defeated. To hell with the wolf. If you think it’s a good idea to look into Freddy, why not do it?”
“He’ll be very cross with me,” murmured Cora, feeling more and more torn.
“When has that ever bothered you before? If there’s one thing you’ve never been, it’s a coward.”
After a moment, she looked up, unable to hide the heat in her voice. “It’s such a strong lead to go on. I can’t just ignore it. I won’t.”
As Violet smiled, Cora added, “Will you be at the party as well?”
A pang of disappointment went through her when the other girl shook her head. “I’m not feeling it tonight, sweetie. You’ll have to make your triumphant return all by your lonesome. I’m sure you’ll love it. And I’m sure I’ll hear all about it in tomorrow’s papers.”
Freddy’s house was modeled after the very latest fashions, a massive wood and glass structure overlooking the ocean. The moon hung high and half-full as a servant took the car from Cora. She glanced at it while smoothing down her mink coat, still feeling a tinge of guilt over what she was about to do. Laughter could already be heard, as could the jazz band, playing a song that just begged people to try out the jitterbug.
Inside, people sparkled against the geometric decor, remote as statues, yet Cora sank into the seething mass of smoke and smiles without the slightest hint of nerves. She was too used to this to ever feel out of place, even when knowing glances were cast her way and followed by exaggerated whispers into ears.
She just slipped into the same superficial greetings as the rest of them and met ingratiating compliments with ones of her own. Her white dress stood out against the glitter, drawing all eyes toward her as she circuited the rooms.
In truth, it wasn’t her favorite dress, not by any stretch, because she knew once she descended into the private, lower rooms where Freddy held his “philosophy meetings,” it would be torn, wrinkled, and stained. Yet she also knew that wearing it would catch Freddy’s eye much faster. White had been out for two seasons, and no one else wore it.
Her calculation paid off. She’d hardly spent five minutes in the billiards room before Freddy parted himself from a group of people, a smile already lighting his face as he approached.
Strange, how a year away from his parties had given her new eyes. She seemed to notice everything about his appearance as if for the first time, notice it and file it away in case it later proved important.
Freddy Davenport was always older than people expected, considering his behavior and way of life. In his late 30s, he nevertheless looked tall and trim, and was always immaculately dressed. He could never have been called handsome—his face had the florid coloring, weak chin, and rabbity eyes of the Crescent City upper class male—but he never wanted for company. His fortune attracted girls who wanted a taste of living rich, and his devil-may-care charm attracted those who already knew the weight of money.
“If it isn’t the loveliest creature I’ve ever cast eyes on, back at last.” Then he took her hand and kissed it, his exaggerated motions mocking the old-world gesture.
Cora smiled, but a part of her still remembered how he had been as quiet as the rest when her father’s disappearance had first become known. “How are you, Freddy? I missed you.”
“I felt terrible until I saw you were here.” His hand settled against her bare back, guiding her through the crowds. “I tried breaking the world speed record with one of my cars today. It blew a gasket instead.”
“Isn’t it? It cost a mint. It might as well be called a tin can instead of a Duesenberg.”
The conversation continued in that vein until they reached a private corner away from the music and hubbub. Then his expression lost some of its blitheness. “I’ve missed you awfully, Cora dear. It was no damn easy thing to take when Vi told me you wouldn’t come to last week’s party. Wouldn’t, not couldn’t.”
“Everything has been such a whirlwind since Father disappeared,” said Cora, letting her voice fall into a serious tone. She searched his face for the slightest hints of guilt.
He shrugged. “Yes, it’s rotten luck, all that. But it’s over now, isn’t it?”
“I’m no longer being accused of his murder, if that’s what you mean, but he’s still missing and presumed dead.”
“Is that why that detective is still hanging around?”
She blinked, startled. “How did you know? Has he contacted you?”
“Gossip moves faster than even my speedboats, darling. And I’m hardly going to let myself be interrogated by something one step removed from my hounds. How would I know anything about your father?”
Cora put a teasing note into her next words despite her flare of anger at the insult toward Hayes. “You know a lot of things, Freddy. You’re friends with everyone.”
“Are we still friends?” His hand slid further down her back in clear disinterest of their conversation.
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are.” His voice slid into that thick, suggestive tone that he used whenever he was about to get wicked. “Coming downstairs tonight?”
There was no repulsion at the thought, but no thrill, either. Instead, she felt a sudden throb of pain somewhere in her chest, an ache over how empty it felt to be sordid. Suddenly, she thought she understood the tiredness she’d glimpsed more and more on Violet’s face.
“Will it be worth it?” she said, trying to sound coy.
“I guarantee it.”
It was a clinch. These secret meetings were always the same. By the end of the night, Freddy would be drunk enough to ramble endlessly, and she would be able to easily ask him questions.
Despite that knowledge, for a moment she nearly backed out. The excitement of learning new information and adding another link to the case had gone rancid. Yet the bitterness of leaving the party without a shred of evidence that she had been right about Freddy’s involvement was too much to bear. “All right. What are we waiting for?”
Freddy only smiled and led her to his study. There was a door hidden behind one of the bookcases, and he opened it with the practiced ease of having done so many times before. Cora kept close as they stepped inside, the smells of cigarettes and sex washing over them even before the moans became apparent.
It looked much like all the rest of Freddy’s orgies. A lot of people appeared outright bored whether they were in or out of their suits and dresses. A few were in the middle of carnal acts, but more seemed content to simply watch. The elite of Crescent City hardly knew how to feel delight anymore, and that extended to sex as much as anything.
To her surprise, Freddy didn’t stop at any of the couches or rugs, instead walking her to the back where a small hallway led to a door he had to unlock. “Freddy, how many secret rooms do you have?”
“Tonight, only this one matters.” Then he opened the door, revealing a stone stairway down that must have been hundreds of years old.
“And what’s down there?” She thought she caught a hint of smoke and chanting.
“The true elite. Out here…” His hand waved at the room of people watching and writhing together, “is mere pleasure. Down here you will find ascension.”
Her skin suddenly prickled. Something about the look in his eyes seemed… ominous. “Freddy, what on earth are you talking about?”
“You’ll understand everything before the very end,” he said, as they began walking down the steps. “I promise.”