“You have a wonderful car.” Cora beamed as they flew down a road that took them away from the city, every twist and turn handled with aplomb by Detective Hayes. It was a convertible model, and he had put the fabric top down to let the crisp air whip at their hair and clothes. After three weeks of hiding from reporters in a house stuffy with worry and wilting bouquets, hurtling through the elements felt utterly refreshing.
As she looked out at the scrubby grass and untamed blackberry hedges flanking the road—the first signs of entering wild land, no man’s land—she remarked, “I’ve never ridden in a KB Victoria before. The engine runs as smoothly as butter.”
And in her very short acquaintance with Detective Hayes, she’d never seen him as relaxed as while behind the wheel. His mouth had eased into a slight smile, and the gold of his eyes glinted with boyish excitement. She had no doubt that, on his own, he would lose himself in the thrill of speed, in an unseen chase that left behind all troubles.
Her comment now brought some wryness to his grin. “Big fan of cars, Miss Marshall?”
She leaned her head back against the seat as the first aspen trees appeared, slender as matchsticks and just as neatly lined up. “Since I agreed to tell the truth, I’ll admit I worried about the car more than my father when he first disappeared. Well, the car and Tierney, although I didn’t know him very well.”
“Dominic Tierney. Your father’s driver.”
Cora nodded, unsurprised that the detective already knew about him. Poor Tierney had been under severe scrutiny in the papers for the first few days. “He’s been with us for three years. Father hired him after buying the car—it was a Bugatti Royale, you see. Monstrously big, and my father didn’t want to muscle around such a beast.”
“Did you ever take it out by yourself?”
“All the time. It was a stately old thing but handled the road beautifully for its size.”
Admiration slid into the detective’s voice. “Elegant, too. Whalebone knobs, walnut steering wheel, and a shiny blue-and-grey paint job. Anyone who has one is driving art.”
Cora turned from a view of ducks bobbing in a pond to stare at him. How did he know such details? The papers had only printed photos of the charred wreck found by police. Then the answer came to her, and she found herself smiling. “Well, Detective, you might be the first good decision I’ve ever made. You looked into the entire case before meeting me this morning, didn’t you? Even to the point of reading through classified police files.”
“I wanted to know what I was getting myself into.”
He had a way of saying things with that voice of his. It was how Cora had always imagined a werewolf’s voice would sound—deep and smooth, with just enough of a growl to turn innocent syllables into something suggestive. Listening to it was like the afterburn of whisky on the throat.
If he was the first thrilling man she’d met, she would have been too flustered to do more than run a hand over her hair like a schoolgirl. But he wasn’t, and anyway she was too interested in hearing what the cops had on her. “Do you still have them? The case files? I want to see how close they are to truly arresting and charging me.”
Her question brought a certain gravity into the air between them, and after a moment he said, “Close enough that I want to work fast on this, Miss Marshall. It’s another fifteen minutes to the site, so let’s hear your version of what happened the day your father disappeared.”
“I don’t know much. I really don’t.”
“It’s all right. Just tell me everything you remember, no matter how small or silly.”
Cora looked out her window, taking in the green swathes of countryside around them. The clusters of flowers, and the little wooden fences, and the distant cottages with their chickens and chimney smoke all looked so innocent, so tranquil. Then she angled her head enough to see what waited ahead: a glowering ridge of birch that marked the beginning of Corpsewood, the forest that butted up against the east side of the city. The forest where her father’s car had been found.
“Three weeks ago exactly, Father told me over breakfast that he was going into New Obsidian on business and would be back home the next morning. He often did that—stay overnight if he knew he’d be working late in another city. No one likes driving through the forest after dark. Imagine a deer flying out in front of your car and crashing through the windshield.”
“Did he give any details on what he’d be doing or who he’d see?”
“No, but that was normal as well. Father had no intentions of grooming me to take his place at the banking firm. He always made that very clear. I know it sounds like another motive for killing him, but the truth is that I completely agreed with the decision. Not a peep of protest from these lips.”
Detective Hayes raised an eyebrow. “Too much responsibility?”
She gave him a shining smile. “Exactly. I would run the business into the ground within a year.”
“I bet you could do a good job if you tried. You have the brains for it.”
That drew a laugh out of her. “The only other time I’ve been called smart was when a man thought he needed flattery to get a dance with me. What’s your reason, Detective?”
He shrugged. “It’s just what I’ve observed since meeting you. Half the time you play stupid because it’s easier to get away with it. The cops think the same. A mere pretty face couldn’t scheme up a murder like your father’s.”
“A murder that I didn’t commit.”
He acknowledged the words with a nod and then said, “What happened after he told you about going into New Obsidian?”
“Not another word passed between us. He finished his toast and coffee and then left. It was all completely normal.” It was frankly embarrassing, how little she knew.
“Did the driver check over the car before they took off?”
“Oh yes, Tierney always did that since Bugs can be so temperamental. But it looked and sounded fine when they pulled out of the driveway. And that’s all I know firsthand. Everything else is what I read about later on, and I can hardly believe newspapers to be accurate about anything when they always lie about me.” Then she shot him a significant glance, hoping he would let her in on details from the police files.
He did. “The car was found on the road through Corpsewood, about three miles in. The terrain there is hilly, and parts of the road are cut through the earth, leaving high sides of exposed rock. Somehow, that huge car had been flung halfway up a ridge of limestone and caught on fire. The flames set the surrounding trees and brush alight. By the time it was all put out, the crime scene was a muddy, compromised mess.”
It sounded ghastly, and for a moment Cora remained quiet. “Why didn’t they find any remains in the car? They never told me they didn’t, but if they had, I would have been pulled down to the station to identify my father. And if there wasn’t anything recognizable, then one of the police necromancers would have scried the bodies to confirm who they were.”
That drew a wry grin from the detective. “See? Brains. The fire was so damn hot that everything burned down to ash and metal. There was no way to recover any remains.”
“Or maybe the bodies weren’t in there.”
“The cops don’t like to think about complicated scenarios when there’s a simpler explanation to grab at. A car as large as a Royale could have only been tossed like that by a bomb planted inside it. Nothing else would be powerful enough.”
Cora stared straight ahead, feeling like her blood might boil. “And no one else has as good a motive as I do.”
She kept calm for a heartbeat before her next breath exploded out in a huff. “What a bunch of faff.”
“You ran around with Ephram Harper for awhile,” said Detective Hayes, voice neutral.
“That was before I found out he was a maniac mailing dynamite to people.”
“He prefers being called an anarchist.”
“I don’t care what he prefers. He could have blown me up. If he’s so against the rich and spoiled, I should have been his biggest enemy. He always had clammy hands whenever we touched. I should have thought about that more carefully.”
Then Cora shuddered, wishing she’d taken along one of her stoles for the sheer comfort of soft fur against skin. “Anyway, he didn’t teach me how to make bombs and I didn’t plant one in my father’s car. I didn’t.”
“Relax, Miss Marshall. I wouldn’t take you on as a client if I thought you were guilty.” Then his voice softened a little. “Sick of talking, or can you stand a little more?”
“Please, let’s continue. I know you’ll have to work quickly to save my neck.”
“What do you think happened to your father?”
He was the first soul who had asked after her own thoughts on the matter, and for once the words struggled to come out. “I don’t know. Father was a powerful man, and a very rich one, but in the end he was just the brain and face of a banking firm. There are dozens of other businessmen like him in the city, and they’re walking around just fine. It’s not the kind of career that gets you killed, is it?”
The detective made a nonchalant noise. “Unless he crossed the wrong person during a business deal.”
“It’s possible, but that never stays secret for long. The biggest men of the city spy on each other so carefully that each one knows what the rest ate for breakfast by the time they’re all in their offices for the day.”
“No enemies that you know of?”
She shook her head.
“What about bad habits?”
“I’m the only one in the family with those, Detective. I really can’t imagine who’d want to kill Father… Besides me, anyway. No wonder the police are licking their chops. This must be the easiest murder case they’ve ever had.”
Then her voice faded to nothing, for the line of silver birch that marked the beginning of Corpsewood now loomed ahead. They were weedy, spindly things, still bare so early into spring, but their stark trunks somehow seemed more of a warning than the shaggy spruce trees that filled the gaps. Despite herself, she shivered. “Why did you want to come out here if you’ve already read up on everything?”
Unlike her, Detective Hayes seemed even more at ease as the first leaves cast shadows upon them. As the road roughened beneath the car, he said, “I like to see things with my own eyes. Maybe the cops missed something. Maybe they misinterpreted what they found.”
“And why bring me with you?” She was dying to know the answer to that.
He considered her words, hands still relaxed against the wheel and expression still faintly amused. “I could tell you wanted to come along. You should’ve picked better shoes, though.”
Cora glanced down at her high heels. They were a pretty maroon with bands of gold leather for the straps. “These pop perfectly with the color of my dress.”
“We’ll be ankle-deep in ash slurries.”
“Which is why I’ll go barefoot once we reach the site.” She felt pleased at how his gaze flickered down her exposed calves and ankles. She thought she had very nice legs and saw no reason to hide them. “I seem like a silly fool, and I am, but I always know how to keep my clothes unharmed. Only men are allowed to ruin them.”
At that, his focus snapped back to her face, and he looked like he wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“I hope you don’t mind me being a terrible flirt, Detective. It’s been over a year since I could last say exactly what I thought, and now I’m determined to speak every little thing that pops into mind, no matter how unladylike or scandalous.”
“Don’t worry about it, Miss Marshall. It takes a lot to make my ears burn.”
“I’ll try my best,” she said, sunnily, and smiled as her words drew another look. Oh yes, it was fun to tweak a wolf’s tail.
Corpsewood was a gloomy place, with tall firs looming so close together that their branches choked out the sunlight. The road had turned into little more than a gouge of asphalt running between sharp rises of earth and rock and root. It was also very quiet compared to the city, with only the roar of the car intruding on an unearthly stillness.
Cora found herself peering through the windshield, suddenly anxious to see the first signs of scorched earth that would mark where her father’s car had been found. To their left, two tall, blackened trees rose within view.
Her reaction was nothing more than a sharp intake of breath, but Detective Hayes still answered her unspoken question. “That’s it.”
Then he fell silent while steering the car off the road to park.
“Is it dangerous at all?” said Cora, already unstrapping her shoes.
Her freed toes wriggled before he replied. “No, but stick close. It’s easy to slip as we climb this.”
He was right; although the trees and brush had been burned into brittle sticks of charcoal, the soil proved as treacherous as sand when they started a cautious climb up the side. Every step soon became a fight.
“This is awful,” she said to the detective, who navigated the scorched skeletons of the brush without pause. He only stuck his hand out to her in reply, helping her over a ridge of tree roots protruding from the earth.
It was easy to see the great chunks carved out from the rock and brush from where the car had rolled upward. The fire had made even uglier wounds, and they stopped at the one where the flames had burned the hottest.
“The scorch marks on the limestone go up high,” murmured Hayes, intent on the scene. “The car burned for awhile.”
Cora nodded, pretending that she saw something equally insightful in a stretch of earth that looked like ashes ready to be scraped from a fireplace. But she didn’t, and perched on a blackened rock to stay out of his way while he prowled. “What are you hoping to find?”
“Anything interesting.” His voice had turned absent, but his eyes looked razor sharp as he easily navigated the charcoal-black soil.
“You’re very vague.”
“Ask me something specific and I won’t be.”
There was a question on the tip of her tongue, and she decided now was as good a time as any to ask it. “What made you leave your pack and live among humans?”
There was no change in his expression. “I wondered when that’d be coming.”
“I suppose it’s one you hear quite often.” When he nodded, she added, “And I also suppose you’ll give me whatever your usual answer is.”
“That would mean ignoring what you said, and I doubt you’ll take that quietly.” Then he looked over at her. In the dappled light of the forest, his eyes had gone dark and inscrutable. “How much do you know about city wolves like me?”
“Not a thing.”
“Then there’s no snappy answer to your question.”
“I’d be just as happy with a long one.”
“You’re not paying me to gab, Miss Marshall.” The words could have been harsh but only sounded wry as he made his way back to where she waited. He eyed her as if he couldn’t make head or tail of anything she did, but added, “Packs have strict hierarchies. Stepping outside of the lines drawn around you is a sure way to get killed for committing treason against the alpha-king. You’re looking at a rare example of someone who did that and survived.”
“Why did you do it?”
“You mean ‘what.’”
“No. Why. Lots of people break laws. It’s the reason that tells you everything.”
He sucked in a deep breath and then let it out, as if deciding against the first answer that had come to him. “I didn’t agree with what I was told to do.”
Cora took in the wry twist to his mouth and the sudden hardness in his eyes, and sensed he’d told her more than most humans knew. That what he hadn’t said still made him furious. She supposed she should have felt vaguely unnerved by this first crack in his composure, but she didn’t. Not one bit. “Does… Does it have anything to do with how wolf packs are slaughtering humans and leaving them in the streets?”
He relaxed again, which told her the answer even before he said, “No. That’s happening because they’re on edge. Very defensive about the borders of their territories.”
“Against everything. It’s all shaping up to become a city-wide pack war.” The words sounded much too calm for what they revealed.
Cora was aghast. “All of them fighting each other?”
At this point, the detective seemed grimly curious about how far her questions would go. “Let’s just say there’ll be a lot more bodies on the streets before the survivors can return to their gold thrones and bleed.”
She scrambled to make sense of it all. A little under half of the city belonged to the wolves. It would be torn apart as surely as a deer caught between teeth. Then she remembered the detective’s casual inquiries about her father. “There are humans quietly involved in this, aren’t there? Do you think my father was one of them?”
“Just for driving through Corpsewood? No. It’s no man’s land. But if he loaned an alpha-king some funds for war supplies…”
“I doubt it. He considered you all worse than beasts. But then again, he knew the city’s underbelly well enough to find someone to bind me, so what do I really know?” Despite herself, her fingers brushed at the back of her head. The sigil throbbed in response, reverberating throughout her skull. She had become very good at not wincing, but somehow Detective Hayes still noticed.
“Never stops hurting?”
She looked up again to find him intent on her. He still stood casually, hands in his pockets and hat tilted at a devil-may-care angle, but his voice had fallen quiet, even sympathetic.
“Never,” she admitted. “I always feel it.”
Then her hand dropped to her side, and she found herself asking, “Will you be in particular danger if it comes to a city-wide war? Will they make you pay for what you did?”
At that, he gave her a lopsided grin. “I’m not part of a pack anymore, Miss Marshall. Right now, that’s the safest thing for a wolf. And believe me, nothing’s dragging me back to one.”
Then he moved away, adjusting his hat against the glare of the sun as he looked down to the road. “I’m not as convinced as the cops that a bomb was what blew up your father’s car.”
It was an obvious change in conversation, but the tactic worked. Hope speared through her so hard that her next words came out breathless. “Just from what’s here?”
“The gas tank of a Royale is as massive as the rest of it. Holds over fifty gallons. That’s enough to start a fire this size. And the road is clean. Not one scorch mark from burning shrapnel. I think the car went up in flames from rolling up the hill. All that metal crushing together like a tin can… As soon as the tank got damaged, it would have exploded.”
Cora beamed. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Everyone said you were the best, and I believed them, but seeing you in action is something else.”
The detective didn’t smile back. “That doesn’t explain how the car was flung into a side of rock. If we want to prove the case against you is wrong, we need a better answer than ‘I don’t know.’”
When he held out a hand, she took it, glad for the help down. “What do you suggest?”
“A visit to the police station.”
She immediately snatched her hand back. “Oh, no. If I see any of those faces ever again, I’ll slap them.”
“They have the car stored in their evidence room. I want to see it, and it’ll be easier with you beside me to vouch that I’m acting in your interests.” Then he extended his hand again.
“What if I just give you a note to show them?”
She half-expected him to outright laugh, but instead he stepped closer, pushing up his hat enough for the sunlight to catch his eyes and brighten them back into their normal gold. “You’re frightened.”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. I read an article in the newspaper yesterday about the different ways I could die when they hang me. If my neck doesn’t break, then I’ll choke to death, and it’ll last longer if the arteries and veins aren’t compressed enough by the rope. How am I supposed to face the police with that in the back of my mind?”
Cora realized she was breathing fast and shallow, and that her jaw was beginning to ache with repressed tears. “And what if I start crying in front of them? I’d never forgive myself for letting them see that they got to me. It’s what they’ve tried to do for weeks.”
Then Hayes’ hand caught her own, stilling their trembling with a gentle squeeze. As she looked up at him, staring into those wild eyes, he murmured, “You’re not on your own anymore, and I wouldn’t take you along unless I knew I could bring you back out. Trust me, Miss Marshall, I won’t leave you to a cell and I won’t make you take any guff. All you have to do is stand there and look smug while I pester them until the veins in their neck pop.”
It coaxed a laugh out of her, imagining the two police inspectors assigned to her case—one with the beefiness of a bull and the other small and insistent like a terrier—turning red in the face. “I suppose I can manage that.”
As they began the climb down, she added, “But I do insist on going back to my home first. This outfit won't do at all. I always try to look my best while being accused of something.”