Cora had to admit that solving the case wasn’t nearly as satisfying as she had imagined. In fact, as her reflection in the mirror proved, it was downright awful.
The thin light of the nearing dawn emphasized her red-rimmed eyes and the dried mascara trailing along her cheeks. Her complexion looked both blotchy and washed out, and even her hair had frizzed out of its usual finger waves. She was certainly glad that the drive back from Freddy’s had happened while it was still dark, and that Hayes had simply shown her to a bedroom and told her to take as much rest as she wanted.
Her sleep had been fitful, as if her brain was too full to fall quiet. Now she sat on the upholstered bench placed at the foot of the bed, staring out the window at a nearby pond. It was a lovely view, but she hardly even saw it. Freddy, a demented cult leader who sacrificed people. Violet, involved in it all and still so cool and calm about sending her right into the thick of things.
In a way, it did make a terrible sense. Freddy simply wasn’t smart enough to keep such an illicit existence secret. He had always displayed his follies with a smile, depending upon his charm and family name to carry him along without consequence. Yet Violet… yes, she was shrewd and tactical in every way. She enjoyed playing with people’s expectations, and always claimed she loved enemies more than friends because it was more fun using them. Apparently, that sentiment hadn’t been the world-weary act all Crescent City socialites loved to put on, but instead cold, plain fact.
Cora felt her lower lip tremble and quickly dashed the thought from her mind. She was sick of crying, and it wasn’t helping her feel better in any way. Good things had to have come out of the night before. She just needed to think them through.
People would finally stop accusing her of her father’s murder. All the reporters and newspapers now had plenty of other figures from high society to chase after. And perhaps she was to remain in isolation for no good reason, but the time would be spent with Hayes.
This final realization was enough to chase off some of her gloom. It also stoked an inclination to explore what she had been too distraught to take in before. She’d never been in a lone wolf’s home. He certainly had masculine tastes when it came to the bedroom, which had mahogany furniture that looked very stark against the cream walls. The closet was small and empty, so she wrapped herself up in the ratty police blanket and moved for the door.
There was a note taped there, written in Hayes’ sharp, bold hand:
I went out to get a few things. Look around wherever you want and use whatever you need. I’ll be back soon.
She took him at his word, searching through the rooms for any hints of his life beyond being a detective. They were few and far between in the small parlor, which was devoid of personal touch, and the kitchen, which looked like no one ever cooked in it.
Just as she peeked into the main bedroom, keys jingled in the front door’s lock. Her heart leapt into her throat until it opened and revealed who was there.
Jane Feral raised her eyebrows while dragging Cora’s entire overseas luggage over the threshold. “Don’t look so disappointed. I just came back from your house. I asked the servants what you’d need for a few days and they packed all of these. Half feel like they weigh more than I do.”
Cora tried to regain her composure. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“It was Sam’s idea, not mine. The police have finished searching your house, so if there’s something missing, blame them.” Jane released her grip on the handles to reach for a bundle of papers tucked beneath one arm. “I also grabbed the morning mail and whatever else was waiting on your study desk.”
Cora could only thank her again, adding, “I really do appreciate it. It’s a lot of trouble to go through, whether it was your idea or not.”
The she-wolf glanced around the small hallway, taking it in as carefully as Cora had. “I have to say, Miss Marshall, you’re resilient if nothing else. Most people wouldn’t have faced last night and come out still willing to see the best in others.”
When Jane walked past her, Cora followed. “To be honest, most of it already feels like a blur. And I really don’t understand why I have to be isolated at all.”
“Do you understand anything that happened last night?”
Cora thought for a moment. “Hayes has incredible stamina. He didn’t slow down once while tearing up that repulsive creature, and then right afterwards he knocked out Freddy like it was nothing. I had to use an iron candlestick to do the same thing.”
Jane stared at her for a moment, as if she wasn’t sure whether Cora was serious. “We’re wolves. It’s normal for us. Let’s put that aside for now. Freddy Davenport is the leader of the cult your uncle started. Last night, he summoned an avatar of their god. You already seem confused. Is it about the avatar? Think of it as a physical manifestation of the god. Something that is living flesh able to interact with our world.”
“It looked more like a clumsy blob made of tentacles to me,” said Cora, unable to keep the doubt from her voice.
“It still successfully came through the portal. That fulfilled half of the conditions needed to bring about the actual rebirth of the god into this world. The other was you.”
At that, Jane paused and looked at her expectantly, obviously waiting for her to put two and two together and voice the answer.
Cora felt like a child facing her stern governess once more. “Because I’m related by blood to Uncle Alfie?”
“That’s why they thought you were the best option, but in truth, any woman with a working uterus would have been fine.”
“With a…” Then Cora’s voice rose into a shriek. “You—you mean that thing was going to impregnate me?”
“Now you’re on the trolley,” said Jane, sounding satisfied. “It took you long enough.”
“My God. I should’ve hit Freddy a few more times for good measure. Would I have even survived giving birth?”
“You saw the father. What do you think?” When Cora only shuddered, Jane added, “Maybe I should have waited to shock you. You don’t look too good. Have you had anything to eat or drink?”
“Not since yesterday morning.” So much had happened since then that there hadn’t been any time to think of food, let alone sit down and eat some.
“There won’t be much to choose from.” Jane headed for the kitchen, obviously aware of where to find it. “Sam’s idea of a meal is frying hot dogs in whiskey and ketchup, and that’s when he bothers keeping anything here. That’s why he’s gone out, to get the basic goods needed in a functioning life now that he has a guest.”
With everything else still spinning in her mind, Cora decided to ask the impertinent question that had lived in her heart since she’d met the she-wolf. “Why do you always seem so pleased with me and yet so hard on him? My past experiences have been quite the opposite when it comes to meeting another woman in a man’s life.”
There wasn’t an immediate answer. Jane found a tin of coffee in one of the cabinets and checked it, taking much longer than needed to see it was empty. Her eyes were a pure yellow, harsher than Hayes’ gold as if warning others about her sharper nature, but right then they looked muted with old grief. “Because I want him to be happy. Orphans are common in wolf packs and are raised together. That’s the closeness you sense between us. We’re like brother and sister. He’s the only family I’ve ever had.”
Cora nodded, feeling her reserve thaw into hot sympathy. “I’m sorry. My mother died in childbirth. You wouldn’t think you could miss someone you never knew, but you do, don’t you? Every day.”
The she-wolf took her in with her full stare. “You’re truly genuine, aren’t you? Want to know the most tiring thing about living among humans? It’s smelling the lies beneath their false little words and trying to act like I haven’t noticed. If a wolf pack survives on loyalty, then human society runs on deception of all shapes and sizes. A constant stream of self-delusion to keep away the crippling fear of being prey.”
“I suppose none of us realize how well a wolf can smell.”
“No, or think through what that means. For example, it’s easy to track exactly where someone’s been.” Then Jane cast a significant glance toward the main bedroom.
“Oh. Then he’ll know that I…”
The she-wolf nodded, her gaze now glimmering with amusement. Before Cora could do more than flush, she added, “I suppose you’ve been embarrassed enough in the last twenty-four hours. Come on. I’ll show you everything and then he’ll think it was my idea.”
“It’s not far from the truth. It’s been some time since I’ve visited. I want to see how badly he’s been doing at having a life outside of work.”
It was hard for Cora to contain her curiosity as Jane turned on the lamps inside the bedroom. It was as clean and well-kept as the guest bedroom, with similar furniture. As Jane prowled around, shaking her head every now and then, Cora drifted over to the dresser, which had a few books on it. They were the type of dusty tomes that her father kept in his study, but when she picked one up and opened it, she found the middle of the pages had all been cut out to hide a red rectangular case.
“Oh,” said Cora in shock, well-used to the sight of morphine kits. She knew if she opened it up, she’d find a syringe, hypodermic needles, and vials waiting to be injected.
Jane came over. “Repurposed for anti-silver. He always keeps some within easy reach.”
As she put the book back, Jane opened the first set of drawers and pulled out lumpy, grey fabric still cradled in the brown paper it had been mailed in. The address was in shaky, old-fashioned handwriting. “Looks like Minnie made him some more socks. She was our first landlady after we left the pack, and I know Sam still visits her regularly. Her late husband had been a wolf, so she was much kinder to us than most humans.”
“I suppose we shouldn’t be doing this,” murmured Cora, torn between the guilt of rummaging through Hayes’ personal things like a cat burglar and the excitement of learning things about him.
“Do you think he didn’t study you just as carefully?” Jane moved on to the wardrobe, which was the same mahogany as the rest of the furniture. A few suitcases were stacked on top of it, but the she-wolf ignored those, instead opening its doors.
Cora studied suits hanging from their hangers on the right side before Jane exclaimed and reached for one of the shelves on the left. “Looks like he added to his collection.”
She pulled out a jar half-full of bullets. They were misshapen, as if they’d already been used. A few had the heavy gleam of silver.
Shock ran through Cora once more. “He’s been shot that many times?”
“To be fair, some of these were from back when he was a pit fighter.”
Cora glanced over the neatly arranged clothing, troubled by what they hadn’t found as much as what they had. She was beginning to understand Jane’s point; there wasn’t a hint of Hayes beyond his work life. She’d known plenty of men who had been utterly obsessed with their career, but they still had family mementos, or a silly hobby like collecting stamps, or even just a fish tank to look after.
Then her eyes caught the wink of gold between two folded shirts. Without thinking, her fingers brushed it and then plucked it free.
It was a pocket picture frame, the type that hinged shut to the size of a cigarette case. One side was empty, but the other held a photo of Jane and Hayes, both years younger and wearing dark uniforms. Jane looked as serious as ever, but Hayes… Hayes was smiling, a big, boyish grin that looked at odds with his formal appearance.
“This photo…” she murmured, unable to take her eyes off it.
Jane leaned in as well. “Ah. One of the few signs that I have any sentimental feelings. That was the day we both began training for our professional places within our former pack. Inspector and researcher, respectively.”
“He seems so happy.”
“He was, yes.”
When the she-wolf offered nothing else, Cora turned to her. “What happened? Why did he leave the Saxbys? I can’t believe he did anything bad. I just can’t.”
The she-wolf studied her intently, expression inscrutable. “A pack’s definition of ‘bad’ is different from a human’s. The truth is, we both fled at the same time for the same reason, but it was worse for him than for me. He’ll tell you when he’s ready to.”
Then Jane took the frame back from Cora, returned it to its place, and closed the wardrobe’s doors. “Speaking of, he’s likely to return soon. If you need anything else, ask him. I’ve been up for thirty-two hours and need some sleep.”
“Thank you. Really.”
The she-wolf just nodded and moved for the front door, but her voice drifted back to Cora. “He’s starting to remember happiness again, you know. I can smell it. It’s whenever he looks at you.”
Before Cora could say anything, the front door opened and closed, leaving her alone. She could feel herself smiling, really smiling, at least until she unconsciously turned toward the wardrobe—and its mirror. She no longer had the haze of shock to soften the blow, and let out a gasp at her sorry state. “He certainly wouldn’t if he saw me like this.”
Her suitcases had been packed just like when she went overseas, and she quickly found her toiletries and a silk robe. The bathroom was as modern and neat as everything else in the apartment, but she barely noticed it while scrubbing herself clean until her skin stung. Then she drained the tub and refilled it with steaming hot water, intending to soak.
Jane’s guess proved true; Cora barely had time to sink in with a sigh before she heard the sharp click of the front door’s lock once more. Anticipation left her breathless as she settled into a pose that didn’t show any more skin than one of her dresses—yet. Then she used a sponge to pour water over herself, raising her voice above the splash. “Hayes?”
“Miss Marshall.” Despite the long night and early hours, his voice sounded clear and alert. “Already awake?”
“Yes. I’ve always been an early riser. Come right in.”
“It sounds like you’re taking a bath.”
“The tub’s walls are very high. Believe me, I’m more decent now than I was last night, and you didn’t seem to mind then.” Cora casually scrubbed at one forearm with the sponge, and made sure she was still in that position when he appeared in view, seeming as cool and collected as ever.
Frustratingly, he still wore his hat, tipping it to block even a sideways glance her way. “Those were unusual circumstances.”
For a disappointing moment, she thought he was about to leave. Instead, he shifted enough to lean against the doorway. Settling in. “I can smell that Jane’s been here. She didn’t press you too hard on anything, did she?”
Cora smiled at the protective undertone to his words. “Not at all. She was very nice. I finally understand why I have to be isolated, although I have to disagree that I’m in any danger. That thing never even touched me.”
“It’s just common protocol for the city. People get nervous when transdimensional beings rip the fabric of reality. They want to make sure nothing’s left behind except some oozing remains. It’s why the surviving cultists are being isolated as well, even though the creature wasn’t after them.”
“Hmm.” Cora lathered up her other arm, making sure the water splashed invitingly. “Does that include Freddy?”
“Sure does. He can’t buy his way out of this one. The city needs to make an example of the wealthy not being above the law.”
“And since I turned out to be innocent, they’ll use Freddy instead.” Her gaze dropped to the sponge in her hand, all thoughts of coaxing over Hayes’ eyes abruptly gone.
His voice grew gentle. “It’s all right to feel conflicted about it. It’s hard to get rid of what you felt for someone, even after knowing the horrible things they did.”
“Oh…” She looked up again. “If he appeared before me at this very moment, I’d just slap him silly. It’s more that… it’s very strange to think of how I missed him and all the rest throughout the year my father controlled me. Yet as soon as I came back, this happened.”
Then she squeezed fresh water over her face. “But I refuse to keep crying about it. My cheeks are puffy enough already.”
At that, he straightened up from the doorway, not quite turning in her direction. “Miss Marshall, you’re the most beautiful girl in the city. I said it when we first met, and it’s just as true now.”
Oh, she had it bad. Plenty of men had said such things to her, but her heart had never melted like now. It took all her control to remain merely playful. “I thought we’d moved on to ‘Bunny.’”
She caught a hint of his smile before he stepped inside, still using his hat to block his view. To her surprise, he then sat next to the tub, keeping his back to her but angling enough to keep their faces near. Most men would have looked uncomfortable or downright silly sitting on the floor in their fine suits. Not him. He looked even more handsome and rugged, and also seemed perfectly at ease, as if he could lunge up in a moment with the same swiftness he had shown as a wolf. With a sigh, he said, “Let’s wait until you’re back in clothes.”
“Still insisting on boundaries?” she teased, pretending nonchalance while lifting one leg under the guise of washing her foot.
“Still needing them. Now more than ever.” He turned just enough to look into her eyes. In the early sunlight, his were a bright gold. “You must know how you affect me.”
At first, she couldn’t believe he’d broached the subject. “Well, I wasn’t completely sure. There are lots of reasons why a fella might insist on staying proper. And I’m not very experienced with facing indifference. Usually, I stoke just the opposite reaction.”
He laughed a little. “I can believe that. But despite what the pictures and plays say, private detectives stay professional with their clients.”
Both legs back in the water, she shifted enough to really face him. Even with what Jane had told her about wolves easily sniffing out the hidden parts of a human heart, she didn’t feel an inch of embarrassment or shame. “Am I still your client, though? Last night, everyone seemed very sure that it’s all wrapped up.”
“Freddy finished confessing while you slept. Apparently, the year you were close to your father’s side and out of reach is what pushed him to pay the thaumaturgist he used for cult work to concoct something to transform Tierney. He didn’t want to wait any longer.”
“I still don’t understand why Freddy would do it that way. It seems so risky and complicated compared to… well, I don’t know. A bomb, like police initially thought.”
Hayes nodded shortly, and she had the feeling he wasn’t quite satisfied, either. “He said it was the best way to get close to your father without somehow harming you. The transformation was triggered by the full moon, so he used his connections to make sure your father would be traveling at the time. He also admitted to hiring thugs to kill the two lovebirds we interviewed. He was scared that whatever they witnessed might hold enough clues to link back to Tierney and then him. He didn’t realize the body had survived. It wasn’t supposed to.”
“That does match with the hint Roy gave me. Remember? He said a human had ordered the hit.” Cora squeezed more water over herself, but absently. “Then it’s all over? The case is really closed?”
The amusement returned to Hayes’ expression. “Not for Captain Dempsey. The Saxbys will want their pound of flesh from good old Freddy. And even with his confession, the police will need to comb through all his property and connections to build their case. The trial will be its own circus. Our case, though… yes, Freddy’s confession has solved it. I’d feel better if I could interview Davenport myself, but it’s unlikely to happen. His lawyers arrived this morning.”
“Then… then I just have to wait through this silly isolation and I’ll have my life back.” She could hardly believe it. Her entire body felt like it was glowing from the mere thought.
She looked at Hayes with a shining smile and found him looking back. He still seemed calm and amused, but there was a heaviness to the gold of his eyes that surprised her. He almost looked sorry that it would be over. Before she could ask what was wrong, he said, “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you’re back home?”
“Oh, I’m not even thinking about that. It’s dizzying enough just feeling the weight off me. Besides…” She paused to run the sponge along her collar bones. The water trailed down, and she was gratified to see his gaze almost follow it. “It’ll be just as much fun staying here until that police enchanter is convinced I’m safe. But… Hayes? Am I still your client?”
He nodded. “I said our case was solved, not closed. The police weren’t the only ones after you. I want to make sure the Saxbys are also satisfied with Freddy Davenport confessing to everything.”
Cora sighed. “Drat. I suppose that’s very sensible, and sense is something I’ve never had. Although I can’t promise to stop tempting the unprofessional side of you.”
He was smiling again, if wryly. “It’s all right. I’ll enjoy it.”
Then he rose to his feet, looking toward the doorway again. “Want some coffee?”
“I’d love some.”
“It’ll be in the kitchen whenever you’re ready.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be in there with my own cup. I need to finish going through the transcript of Davenport’s confession.”
Strange, how the idea of them quietly reading together delighted her as much as if he had pulled her out of the tub and taken her right into the bedroom. She tossed aside the sponge with a sigh, sure that the day ahead would make up for her lousy night. “I’ll be right out.”